Saturday, December 23, 2017

Diablo Swing Orchestra - Pacifisticuffs (...and Further Thoughts)

As much as this is a review of Diablo Swing Orchestra's new album, Pacifisticuffs, it also expresses my thoughts on several other areas from the perspective of a reviewer and critic. It's not every day that I approve a rash of comments on Contaminated Tones in about three hours time which, for lack of a better description, wish death and malice upon my reviewer (odd coming from fans of a band with an album called Pacifisticuffs in which the lyrical content is vaguely passive-aggressive). This did cause my senses to perk up and my intuition to tell me that somewhere in the nether-realms of the web, a storm was stirring and we were getting the flood-waters.

A quick aside to add context: two years ago Apteronotus - who I have always felt to be a more capable writer and reviewer than myself - wrote a review for Diablo Swing Orchestra's Pandora's PiƱata. I would not categorize his ultimate judgement as positive. Diablo Swing Orchestra, (DSO - according to their fans; I refuse to use the abbreviation because I'll start confusing myself with Deathspell Omega) in an effort to drum up some Facebook activity had been looking for bad reviews for their new album, the obnoxiously titled Pacifisticuffs, to post. They selected Apteronotus's review, even though it was two years old and on a previous album they weren't attempting to promote. The response was singular:

"Lame review."
"Glad you were in another car accident."
"Asshole OMG."
"You must be fun at parties."

There were a host of other comments similarly full of good cheer (I'm in the Christmas spirit I guess) on their Facebook post. Importantly, the interesting comments revolved around the concept that the review was not accurate or objective. At least these assessments raise concerns that could be proven or disproved. For instance, a common retort mirrored this comment: "I mean seriously, operatic vocals & Evanescence?? Where the hell did you get that, moron!" Perhaps the impression that Annlouise's vocals were operatic came from the fact that they were in fact influenced by her opera background and that throughout the record, though other styles do appear, there are a large swath of instances that show this influence. In an interview in 2006 with Metal Symphony (one of the few interviews I found that talked about vocal style specifically at any point), her style was confirmed by the Diablo Swing Orchestra member them self: "We think that it's probably mostly due to the fact that the bands you've mentioned (plus many others) combine distorted guitars with female vocals, some in various sorts of opera-style." Annlouise left Diablo Swing Orchestra to continue her opera career. Since there is no significant difference in citing Evanescence versus Lacuna Coil, Nightwish, Etc, and listening to the record, objectively, the assessment is accurate (See "Aurora" for a prime example).

Equally objective would be the description of current vocalist Kristin Evegard's vocals as pop influenced on new album, Pacifisticuffs. They are not far in style from Gwen Stefani's or Pink. There is a power in her voice which places Kristin's vocals leagues above your run-of-the-mill pop singer and is, for me, one of the most pleasing aspects to the record. To my ears, her vocals are stronger than Stefani's but not quite as powerful as Pink's. The breathy and wispy character is notable in tracks like "Lady Clandestine Chainbreaker." Comparing Kristin's vocals to rock vocalists or metal vocalists such as Pat Benetar, Doro Pesch, or Leather Leone, it is discernible that the appropriate grit, grime, and grimace is missing to qualify Evegard as being a metal or hard rock vocalist stylistically. This is extendable to the R&B arena as well. Consider a vocalist such as Tracy Nelson or Aretha Franklin. This extends also to the male vocalists on the album whose vocals sound classically trained and too smooth and friendly to fall into the metal realm themselves. The vocal capabilities of all involved here are impressive from a technical standpoint.

Regardless, I generally can't stand the vocals on this record. They are plastered everywhere, over every section in which I felt the music should be the main focus. In this way, Pacifisticuffs felt more grating to my ears than Pandora's Pinata which at least allowed the musical components to eek out a meager existence in this bleak landscape where bongos and clarinets tower over the guitars and Latin beats are used to landscape this toy-land world. "Knucklehugs (Arm Yourself With Love)" is a perfect example of this failure to allow the music beneath to lead the intensity As the vocals are gang-chanted spurts of borderline hippie drivel lyrical matter, I can't imagine the general metal audience finding any thematic reward considering the predisposition to thematic content involving mostly death, destruction, violence, hate, malice, blood, darkness, and sex.* The fact that I'm not a fan overall of female vocalists in this wispy pop-style - there are few exceptions - adds to the discomfort of listening to this album over and over. The vocals (and bass) are also engineered so much to the front of the mix that when vocals are present it covers up the subtlety of all other instruments. This mix is a decisively non-metal mix in this regard. With the vocals and bass so prevalent we are presented with a sound design which fits music in the pop realm rather than in the rock realm.

When you hear noises from the kitchen and inspect the bottom of your trash bin
On the instrumental side of the album, we get commendable performances across the board. As a bassist, Andy Johansson's playing on this record is particularly laudable for the sheer number of styles he's maneuvering through and his driving presence throughout, but we were prepared for the variety aspect of this record and I found the bass parts at times to be overbearing. "The Age of Vulture Culture" - a song that reminded me of "Lady Marmalade" - highlights the heavily syncopated nature of the backing music across the record. Much of the instrumentation, especially the bass, guitar, and horn sections line up with the percussion. Speaking of the horn section, Daniel Hedin on trombone and Martin Isaksson on trumpet get credit for adding the album's most distinctive instruments. The percussive backing, handled by drummer Johan Nordback, is a key element for me which I enjoyed throughout.With all this in mind, I do feel as though this is not meant to be perceived as a "Metal record."

For me, all these combinations of styles, the western, big band, swing, pop, latin, operatic, jazz, and the few if any actual metal elements, can create a war of presence. In "The Age of Vulture Culture," the horns through the chorus, perhaps a fun and unique component for some, sound like the local duck pond in the midst of mating season; there's way too many ducks. I was fascinated by the way in which all these disparate influences come together to yield what essentially sounds like a heavier ska band. One of the most hideous combinations on the record can be explored in "Jigsaw Hustle," where we get the boppy-ness of a disco beat, definitely incorporated to spur much crowd jumping in a live setting, underpinning one of Pacifisticuff's more metallic tracks. It comes across as summoning contradictory sensations in the track. The multiple instrumental breaks are unnecessary for me. There's no need for a track like "Cul-De-Sac Semantics" when the song before ends with a similar degree of force.

Some of the tracks I did enjoy include the subtle haunting instrumental, "Visions of the Purblind," which is an excellent introduction to following track "Lady Clandestine Chainbreaker," which I also enjoyed much of. I felt Kristin's vocals in the track were evocative and inspiring. The chorus is extremely catchy and shows how the horn section can be incorporated in a way that adds to the depth of the tracks instead of diverting attention from it. It's unfortunate that Diablo Swing Orchestra stretched the track out, which I thought didn't fit the song's upfront faster elements. I really was keen on "Interruption" when it's intro began playing, but the dissolution into lounge-influenced verses didn't serve the intensity of the introduction in the long run. The song would have worked it's way into a favorites playlist somewhere if the intensity was maintained until the 'Come spin me around...' transition, which I felt manifested into an inspired culmination to end the song.

Going back to my short review of Licho's Podnoszenie Czarow and my theory of the Katamari Damacy effect in black metal, that effect could also be extended to the avant-garde and progressive realms as well, in which often progressive ideas in structure, phrasing, and meter are often jettisoned in place of surface aesthetics such as genre-mixing, the good-ole "cue the pan flutes" syndrome, or use of other "floating experimentation" measures. Diablo Swing Orchestra is a prime example of this. At any point we are inundated with a range of instrumentation that counterfeits the origin styles and smears the result. In one sense, the experimentation in bands like this are more akin to texture experiments in the noise-realm than music to listen to and digest as traditional songs because the wash of sounds and combinations are impossible to base on previously experienced successful experiments. If we're listening for the "surprise" or the "weirdness" factor of the material overall, much as I expect I'll be doing on something such as the Cum Broth or Shit Huffer tapes sitting next to me, then Diablo Swing Orchestra can be firmly placed in that same category. The textures and overall mixing of elements on Pacifisticuffs, while vapid on a structural level, manage to give off feelings of folly, joviality, and temperance. If that was a goal, then success was achieved.

I think that's why there's a big gap between my experience with Diablo Swing Orchestra's style and a band such as Arcturus. Where the former goes all in with every instrument they can find in the closet, Arcturus, who I think most would objectively classify as avant-garde and experimental, started to slowly incorporate different elements into the material in a way in which listeners were able to grow to understand the usages of the different elements and the aim of their usage in the composition. Aspera Hiems Symfonia had the symphonic elements strongly incorporated over what I think most would call a fairly average black metal foundation. There were some bursts of experimentation in sound but the overall experience was initially manageable and rewarding after multiple listens. La Masquerade Infernale expanded on the concept, incorporating more elements in a darkly frivolous operatic manner including female vocals, more piano, clean male vocals, and a heavy focus on exploiting transitions to push the tension forward. For those that appreciated the experimentation side of Arcturus' first album, their second album was a gift to the ears. Sham Mirrors added electronics and sci-fi flourishes to the carnival atmosphere, taking the terrestrial and launching an extraterrestrial album. The listener grew with the band as they explored the potential each previous progression unlocked. Diablo Swing Orchestra similarly mix a treasure trove of styles and instrumentation however, to my ears, do not do so in a way that is manageable or digestible.

It's often a go-to claim of fans of these avant-garde / Katamari Damacy categorized groups that those that are critical aren't open minded. The claim of not being "open minded" to music is a argument claimed too often against negative feedback. It's easy, however false, to claim that because someone doesn't like a mangled grouping of styles smashed together in a CERN-like centrifuge, that they are closed minded to different styles. These are red herrings. One can not claim that just because someone does not like a band's output that they are close minded to the different inputs. That would be like claiming that because someone doesn't like tomato sauce they aren't open minded to new foods. This is especially true when an audience has gone through the effort of listening, assessing, and reviewing the material and giving reasoning of why they perceive the material to be tortuous. That activity alone defines an open-minded approach. Open-mindedness is defined by the willingness to explore while close-mindedness is defined by the willingness to ignore. These appeals to one's own emotional response on having a band they like receive negative coverage are predictable and fallacious. Diablo Swing Orchestra are a band which experiment in so many different styles, combinations, and aesthetics in which the origin genres are tempered, folded, and beaten into something in which it is nigh impossible to actually determine whether we enjoy the myriad origin genres and influences.

It's extremely easy to confuse the objective and the subjective in regards to art criticism. In one hand, we want reviews to be objective; the honest and unbiased absorption and interpretation of art. In some sense, art criticism is always objective as there is a definitive plate on the table for us to taste. We can objectively explain the ingredients. In music, these ingredients come in the form of influences and common stylistic tendencies. Yet, how we interpret the art is heavily reliant on aesthetic judgement and sense. Immanuel Kant touched upon this in 1783: "When an appearance is given us, we are still quite free as to how we should judge the matter. The appearance depends upon the sense, but the judgement upon the understanding; and the only question is whether in the determination of the object there is truth or not."** Our judgements are based on our sensory understanding and so long as there can be found truths in that understanding, the judgement can be determined to be true and reasonable.

The result of any objective assessment then results in a subjective opinion which qualitatively expresses one's understandings of art, in this instance an album. It's in this way that an objective review process yields a subjective total viewpoint. A purely objective review would be absolutely meaningless to read. It would tell facts and figures which are already known and explicitly expressed. Reviews could be written as a listing:

Diablo Swing Orchestra - Pacifisticuffs (2017)
- Female Pop Vocals.
- Latin rhythmic influences.
- Occasional Bariton Male Vocals
- Avante-Garde
- Heavy bass presence
- Incorporation of horn instruments.

This manner of review has no value as there is no judgement made. Fans read reviews because they want to read the opinion of someone else, not be told what they already know. They seek to know someone's judgement other than their own. Mostly, I think that artists seek out reviews more than fans of the band. For an artist to read a criticism is to seek out what people feel was not executed to their liking. They don't need to be told the facts; they seek the subjective to improve and prosper. A totally objective review is the difference between paragraph three where I describe Kristin's vocals on Pacifisticuffs and paragraph four where I say how I don't necessarily enjoy them. If I left out the subjective thoughts on the album, then no one would know what my actual feelings were on the record. What purpose would that serve?

I had the bizarre feeling that I had heard these bizarre combinations and parodied superlative re-imaginings of genres. I had: Masato Nakamura's score to Sonic the Hedgehod. Casino Night Zone in particular gives off a very similar vibe. I went back and listened to the entire soundtrack for the game and the comparisons are really interesting. Maybe if Diablo Swing Orchestra composed in 32-bit format, I would have enjoyed the album more. Ultimately, as weird as Diablo Swing Orchestra and their album Pacifisticuffs is, the concept and execution is not unheard of. My feelings are that Pacifisticuffs, and Diablo Swing Orchestra, create music for the purpose of being experimental and weird, catering to an audience that seeks the claim of open-mindedness without having to actually listen to the formative genres they claim to be open-minded to. This is musical acculturation at it's wackiest and wildest. It's trotting into a wild west town on a blue and orange hippopotamus wearing a space-suit and carrying a zucchini and claiming that everyone must take notice at how bad-ass your helmet is. Some people surely enjoy this music, but the reasons for that enjoyment I either don't understand or find difficult to empathize with.

* Meant to play into the stereotypical expectations of what metal fans look for in lyrical content.
** Immanuel Kant "Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics" ex 290.

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