The Diablo Swing Orchestra

How we come to love or appreciate music can be a story in itself. A good example for me would be The Doors. I have to admit that I despised my first Doors album, Strange Days, which was a gift from my Dad when I was around eight years old. But since it was from my Dad I forced myself to listen to it repeatedly, trying to figure out what he saw in the band, and eventually fell in love with them. Eventually.

Other music catches you unawares, like those peopole who inexplicably draw your attention in a crowd. Riding the crowded subways home from work at night, the various faces and characters start to bleed together losing substance or flair until you start to forget they’re even there and then, suddenly, someone brushes by you and with only a moment’s glance at their face, you fall in love. The Diablo Swing Orchestra was one of these, crammed into a playlist full of music to review that I’d largely tuned out while I worked on other things. I was at the stove stir frying something or another when they cued up, and just a few bars into Balrog Boogie the music had grabbed me by the chin and forced me face-forward towards the stereo. By the end of the first track they had my full, undivided attention and by the end of the fifth I was standing atop the couch, makeshift sword flailing wildly, arms flexing with sympathetic rage. I felt not unlike I’d just slammed down a massive pot of black coffee after a week free of caffeine. I was seeing red with clarity!

Red really is The Diablo Swing Orchestra’s color. Even prior to seeing the album art, the name was already evoking the appropriate imagery. The Diablo Swing Orchestra brings you The Butcher’s Ballroom? Fallacy of intent aside, if you aren’t picking up on the red motif from that alone then you’re doing it wrong. The genre is avaunt-garde heavy metal, brilliantly and smoothly mixing distinct elements of big band, operatic vocals and more traditional jazz around a heavy metal core. At one point in a song, snarling electric chords might be grinding down at you on the wings of some aggressively trilling vocalist until you’re all but convinced that you’re charging over the sandy ridges of the desert planet Dune screaming the name of Mau’dib, then suddenly a jazzy little flute solo bursts out and you stop short, exclaiming, “Oh, hello, Pierre Rampal, what are you and this charming little corner of post-liberation Paris doing among the blood-soaked sands of Arakis?”

The Diablo Swing Orchestra will surprise you is the message you should take from this. Drop your preconceptions, especially the ones you may have about the metal genre and instead prepare for every stanza to be its own delightful little twist ending. There’s a lot going on here, but unlike most metal it isn’t going on in the melting pot style of blending five instruments together into an inaccessible paste but instead they diligently ferment a fine bottle of wine with every note and undercurrent hitting on cue, a bottle you have to drink twice just in case you missed something the first time!

A Swedish band, The Diablo Swing Orchestra’s homepage is a fun little exploration in itself. A simple flash ‘novella’ describes the certainly apocryphal history of the orchestra, stretching back to the 16th century and encompassing a Templar’s tale of popularity that earned the ire of the lords of the land, driving the musical act underground for centuries. The story lends a backdrop for the eccentricities in the music, the ambitious vocals of Daniel Håkansson and Annlouice Loegdlund and even, to a degree, the lyrical choices the band makes.

Ah yes, the lyrical choices, the pitch spread liberally across the fields of Elysium. Do I think highly of the lyrical quality of the music? Evidence already suggests that I do not. I will confess that I am not mired in the traditions of heavy and death metal, so this becomes a tricky point to critique. My understanding that these overly blatant, heavily Tolkien inspired notions, concepts that act as though they’ve never heard the word subtext before in their lives, are in fact the meat and milk of northern European metal, and if that’s the case then regular fans of the genre will be in their comfort zone. For me, I especially appreciated the songs written in languages I’m not fluent in. Still, with music as excellent as the D.S.O. writes, my instinct is not to reject the lyrics but instead to embrace them and try to learn to love them. With everything else constructed with such precision and talent, maybe…just maybe…it’s me and not them, and if I get to indulge in a mood that powerful, then I can howl along to any ridiculous tale they choose to weave around me!