So, the inevitable finally happened. Those who have followed the life of System of a Down and its lead vocalist and lyricist Serj Tankian have wondered for years when he would finally issue his debut offering. Tankian, whose political and aesthetic activity keep him wildly busy, has become an identity that cannot be contained by the trappings of a band. System's 2005 two-part offering Mezmerize/Hypnotize, produced by Rick Rubin, was a creative high point and perhaps a pinnacle for a band whose individual members had different directions they needed to explore outside that collective. These guys did it right; they came up from the underground. They started with a well-circulated three-song demo -- it reached Australia and New Zealand -- and word of mouth that scored them their deal in America. They made records their own way, and went on an indefinite hiatus before those divergent interests lessened their power as a group.
Tankian's Elect the Dead is out on his own imprint, Serjical Strike (through Warner-Reprise). He plays virtually everything on the set except for drums and strings. The drum parts were all composed and programmed on drum machines before he brought in System drummer John Dolmayan to play live drums as well. Dan Monti helped out in places with guitar, bass, and additional drum programming. While Tankian claims his second album will be "a more orchestral, jazzy record," this one is anything but. It's as hard a rock record as anyone would expect and is literally chock-full of instrumentation, lyrics, noise, dynamics, and yes, songs. At 45 minutes, it's plenty long -- that's not a criticism. Tankian's singing and writing style are certainly different from System's. To cite one example, check the textured, poetic surrealism of "Honking Antelope." There are strings, acoustic guitars, female-sounding backing vocals and some space. But the choruses are loaded with monstrous guitars, blasting drums, and a tension that never really finds its release even as it becomes an anthem in the refrain: "We are the cause of the world that's gone wrong/Nature will survive us human dogs after all...."
The opening cut, "Empty Walls," comes roaring out of the box with pulsing guitars hammering everything in sight before the verse slows to a crawl, full of layered vocals, and a delivery that is not unlike Gordon Downie's from the Tragically Hip! But the music couldn't be more enigmatic. It twists and turns, running down big hooks and riffs and turns them inside out with beautifully lush draperies of sound, spaces worthy of an empty room, and near operatic recitative melodic lines. The political and personal are interwoven tightly in Tankian's lyrics. He challenges his own poetry and his assertions of social, political, and spiritual belief continually. It becomes difficult to know what it is he actually means, or if he contradicts himself -- especially if you listen to songs like "Saving Us" while looking deeply into a mirror. Irony, cultural and political and economic indictment are the other side of the coin in songs like "The Unthinking Majority." On this latter tune, just as hardcore punk chanting and industrial metal riffs tear at one another for dominance, pianos open up in unexpected places. Lithe lines add air and a breath to the supercharged anger, and one wonders why, until "Money" comes literally screaming out of the box with its near perfect meld of gothic classicism and raucous, blind speed hardcore. "The Sky Is Over" melds everything from acoustic rock, industrial metal and Queen-like opera cadences and winds it all into something so addictive it's irresistible. It's so heady that it becomes a welcome relief to hear "Baby," a broken elegiac love song -- that doesn't sound like any other broken love song you've ever heard -- and cracks the seam of the disc wide open. The rest of the album follows in similarly dramatic suit. There is barely time to grasp one idea when another is thrust upon the listener. Coming to grips will take several listens. Perhaps countless listens. In other words, this is no mere egotistical solo release. It's an ambitious egotistical solo release, and one with the chops to pull it all off. The well placed spaces and lithe textural moments of delicate instrumental engagement and interlude prevent Elect the Dead from going by in a blur. Truth of the matter is that if you will only open yourself to it, you'll be able to hang on to those words, debate them, hold them in your heart, in your mind, and all the while have a cathartic emotional experience. The pretentious prog excesses in these songs pay off abundantly, because they are rooted in the craft of songwriting, production, conviction, and tough, serpentine rock & roll by someone who actually has something to say. Elect the Dead may a rather curious title for a recording as wide ranging and savvy and committed as this one, but from seeming paradox and contradiction a brave new musical vision, one that makes it completely OK to take chances with the form again, emerges. [A Special Edition of the CD was also released.]