Though they're definitely much more accessible than some of their peers, the Diablo Swing Orchestra are without a doubt one of the best avant-garde metal bands around. Granted, it does seem weird to put them in the same category alongside bands like maudlin of the Well, Dog Fashion Disco, and Ved Buens Ende, but their eclectic instrumentation, diverse song arrangements, heavy symphonic components, and unorthodox composition all seem to suggest otherwise. I'm happy to say that their latest album, 2012's Pandora's Piñata, is undeniably their strongest album yet.
What's most amazing about this album is that the Diablo Swing Orchestra have managed to remain as unpredictable and fresh as they were during their debut. Everything about this album is designed in an incredibly effective manner to keep you on your toes until the very end. Just when you think you know where the album is going to go, it will throw a curve ball and smack you upside the head, sending you to first base, at which point I'm no longer entirely certain how the metaphor will continue. Sure, there are some "predictable" songs (if you can even call it that, as far as these guys are concerned); the first couple of tracks, like the excellent swinging lead single "Voodoo Mon Amour" and the intense Latin-infused "Guerrilla Laments", are both unarguably very "safe" compositions for the band. But these merely serve to set the stage for the rest of the album, for which the entire unabridged Webster's Dictionary does not contain enough adjectives to suit my descriptive purposes.
The song "Aurora", for example, feels like some sort of drunken Fantasia segment, as if a ballet was being backmasked and then played by an entire opera production while on strong hallucinogens. The incredibly eerie vocal and string interplay comes from seemingly nowhere, providing a stunning contrast to the rest of the album with its sheer levity. The one-two punch of "How to Organize a Lynch Mob" and "Black Box Messiah" also nearly defies description completely; the former is a softer, string-based introductory piece which segues directly into the latter, which, as far as I can tell, is some kind of eclectic abomination brought to life by some combination of dedicated force of will and sheer certifiable insanity. It's hard to nail exactly what genre they're stylizing here, not in the least because I hear both elements of electronica and surf rock (neither of which were likely even intentional on the part of the band). "Exit Strategy of a Wrecking Ball" is also a powerful number with its delicate balance between full-strength brassy metal and lighter vocal soliloquies. The bass-heavy guitars often provide a driving force to the otherwise almost farcical demeanor of the lighter sections, and the song one extremely well-placed scream that, in my opinion, absolutely makes the piece. And then we have "Kevlar Sweethearts", which sounds like a steampunk Western piece, with the soft, dirge-like string and mariachi-esque brass playing often contrasted by the heavier laments of electric guitars and enough drum and bass to deafen a large mammal.
The final track, "Justice for Saint Mary", deserves special mention for being the most fucking insane thing I have ever had the pleasure to hear. The song starts with a soft, melodic build, a light pastoral piece between acoustic guitars, strings, and some soft vocals; only the understated slashing of the bass and occasional horn interludes suggest anything heavier developing. This carries itself on and develops itself for about six minutes before, just as you think the piece is going to end, the drums and electric guitars suddenly burst in without warning, leading into one of the most effectively shocking moments on any album, period. I won't spoil the ending of the album for you, because it literally is just that flooring when you hear it for the first time, but needless to say, this has easily become my favourite track from the band.
Though all of the musicians on this album are quite talented, I'd like to single out Annlouice Loegdlund, the lead vocalist, in particular for some well deserved praise. Her classically-trained opera-based style of soprano is absolutely gorgeous to listen to, and it's safe to say that the Diablo Swing Orchestra would not be the same without her. Loeglund's sheer range and expressiveness is absolutely unheard of in rock music today; the only person I can imagine comparing with her would be Annie Haslam of Renaissance, and that band hasn't even been relevant since the 1980s.
In addition, Diablo Swing Orchestra's lyrics remain an unusually strong point for the band, seemingly simultaneously the semi-relevant nonsense work of a cloud cuckoolander and the disturbingly spot-on judgements of a man with all too much clarity and sanity. The song titles are also just as original and evocative as they always have been, if not more so, providing some welcome framework to the often-cacophonous medleys of music contained within. Sure, these are minor notes, but it's this kind of attention to detail that really makes Pandora's Piñata not just a good album, but a great album.
And here's the icing on the metaphorical cake: this album is the first from the Diablo Swing Orchestra that sounds like a cohesive whole and not just a random collection of songs. Unlike their earlier albums, the songs here are paced quite well for concentrated listening, starting out strong, digressing and experimenting a bit through the middle, and culminating in an unbelievably satisfying finale. Don't get me wrong, The Butcher's Ballroom still is one of my favourite metal albums, but it suffered greatly for feeling disoriented instead of a bona fide unit. It's gratifying to hear that the band has addressed what was their only major musical flaw.
What's most reassuring about this album is that the Diablo Swing Orchestra are no one-trick pony; if nothing else, this album will prove to you that these guys can keep their music fresh and engaging despite a pretty simplistic starting idea ("hey, what would happen if we took swing...and made it metal?"). The amount of stylistic diversity these guys can pack into a single album is nothing short of staggering, and the press release blurb "An eclectic mash up of metal, opera, swing jazz, tango, and spaghetti western soundtrack" doesn't do them justice. This has quickly become one of my most-listened-to albums, period. If you do not enjoy this album, you may not be able to physically experience pleasure.
9.5 / 10
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