Artist: Serj Tankian
I’m not sure how famous Serj Tankian is on his own, but through 2006 he spent a decade as lead singer, rhythm guitarist, and occasional keyboardist for System of a Down, who scored the flat-out weirdest series of major hit songs (Chop Suey, Toxicity, B.Y.O.B.) of any band since the 1970s. I’d only recommend three of their five albums, but those include Toxicity (’01) and Mezmerize (’05), each a fair candidate for my favorite heavy-metal album — or do I mean favorite punk album? — of all time. Their songs were smart, well-constructed, and well-played, but their sound also fit well the pleasure center of my brain. Theatrical vocals that switched from soaring and melodic, to fierce, to raspy, to cartoonish? Loud, choppy riffs? Israeli folk-dance tunes and propulsion (actually Armenian, but I can’t tell the difference)? Righteous semi-coherent political fury? An attention span that was happy to develop an idea for four minutes, but only if you agreed to spend at least one of them madly dashing with them after something that suddenly caught their eye? I have no idea how this combination sold millions of copies, but it was perfect for me.
When System of a Down broke up, Serj Tankian had no trouble finding talented new band-mates. But the majority of his old band’s lightness and humor had come from co-writer / second vocalist Daron Malakian, so at first it wasn’t clear what Tankian had to offer besides slightly clumsy, earnest imitations of System of a Down. Although I put his solo debut Elect the Dead in my Top 10 of 2007, I then kind of ignored and dismissed it for years, especially when Imperfect Harmonies was his rather leaden follow-up. I was almost stunned to rediscover Elect the Dead last summer and fall hard for it again: why the heck *shouldn’t* I enjoy a slightly inferior sequel to maybe my favorite punk/metal albums ever, after all? But that discovery was made easier by his release of solo album #3, Harakiri, which for the first time provided answers to the question of “Where else can Serj go from here?”.
A few songs on Harakiri disproportionately shape my reaction. Two are unexpectedly beautiful. Deafening Silence opens with glittering note-by-note acoustic guitar, but that becomes a soft backdrop to gorgeous synth-pop, in which several different sound patches at a time each provide their wobbling melodies and rhythmic variations like quantized electric birds. Tankian croons most of the song in a heartfelt if not-completely-steady baritone, though he sings the bridge in a rap cadence. Forget Me Knot builds its verses — each with new arrangement touches — on rippling piano, aided by ticking drum machine, soft synth, and wordless female backing vox; it smoothly transitions into a chorus of soaring heavy rock and a bridge with female-sung operatics. The lyrics on both are evocative rather than clear, but seemingly the narrator of each is addressing a former close friend or lover who’s become a public figure. “You speak to millions, but talk to no one/ Home is the place you can’t walk away from/ You seek opinions, but listen to no one/ You throw up your hands and tell me it’s all done…/ I want you, I need you/ I pray that God absolves you/ Can’t live this life without you/ I’ve cleared this coffin for two…/ Sheath your swords, and take the eagle’s peace”.
Ching Chime is a different triumph. It has a great groove — over snake-charmer guitar, it builds layers of subtle synthesizer and drum machine, then loudens the guitar and kicks in the beats — and another soaring heavy rock chorus, a core strength of Tankian’s, after which he breaks out in Middle Eastern prayer-style ululations. But it’s also, on the verses, the silliest he’s been since his old band broke up, and silly in a way he never tried before: imagine Speedy Gonzalez and the Tasmanian Devil of the old Bugs Bunny cartoons as a melodic-rap duo making sure 25% of their syllables rhyme with “chime”, and you’re not far from his delivery. It is a new thing unto this world.
Cornucopia isn’t, but it’s a rock song that doesn’t sound like System of a Down: leaner, sleeker, more radio-catchy and very good at it. It’s at once a eco-political song, old territory for him, and a relationship song. He’s talking, this time, of the destruction of both Eden and early, easy romantic love when he sings — with his usual weakness for too-violent metaphor — “Sever the head of cornucopia/ We rape the earth and don’t know why it strikes/ Do you believe in stormy weather, stormy weather?/ Hurricanes play musical chairs with homes and chateau”. Yet he also means both when he sings “Don’t you think we’re extraordinary?/ Believing and seeing, realizing the imaginary”. I do, and we’d better be; the earth is much more interesting for having us modern humanfolk around, and we’ll need to invent extraordinary solutions to still happily be here in a few decades. I’m not used to Serj Tankian talking up our chances.
The rest of Harakiri sounds like System of a Down. But he’s proven he doesn’t *need* to, allowing me 100% guilt-free enjoyment thereof. Figure It Out is a particularly intriguing musical mix of the brutishly blunt, the rapid-fire, and the anthemic. Uneducated Democracy has the largest number of really catchy riffs. Reality TV stars several of Tankian’s most entertaining singing voices, and while I think it may be trying, in a bout of neo-Andy Rooney crankiness, to imply some criticism of body piercing, the relish with which he chants “Nipples! Tongues! Testicles! Cheeks!” makes it clear he’s far too much a naughty 10-year-old to ever carry it off. A smart, gifted, spazzy, naughty 10-year-old. Why wouldn’t I adore an album of that?
– Brian Block