As the lead singer for the massively popular nu-metal outfit System of a Down, Serj Tankian roared and howled his way to fame and fortune. But in 2006 System of a Down went on hiatus indefinitely and Tankian has since been hard at work on his solo debut, “Elect the Dead.”
The album features grinding guitar riffs, erratic tempos and politically charged vocals. If that sounds familiar it’s because all of those terms just so happen to fit System of a Down to a T. Indeed, with “Elect the Dead,” Serj Tankian never strays too far from his origins.
But that isn’t a bad thing. The fact that Serj managed to make a record that shares a sonic resemblance with his former work separates him from countless solo efforts that strive self-consciously to be different simply for the sake of being different.
Nevertheless, “Elect the Dead” can sometimes be a challenging listen. The album’s sound is dissonant and baroque, with a tendency towards bizarre vocal touches.
The uninspired lyrics don’t help make the album any more accessible. Despite shimmers of greatness, they fall mostly into two categories: broad, heavy-handed rants about relationships (“why do we sit around and break each others’ hearts tonight?”) and broad, heavy-handed rants about politics (“we are the cause of a world that’s gone wrong.”)
Meanwhile, some of the songs are just plain mediocre. The repetitive chorus of “Baby” might get stuck in your head, but you’ll probably want it out again as soon as possible. Worse still, the slow-as-molasses title track is oversaturated with anguished vocals and unmemorable piano.
Thankfully, the bad tracks are heavily outnumbered by the good. At his best, Tankian demonstrates his knack for taking songs in unexpected but glorious directions.
When “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” switches gears suddenly from a lurching, overbearing verse into a staccato vocal pre-chorus and then transforms into a lethargic piano interlude, the effect is downright jarring. But repeated listens reveal the track to be markedly charming in its eclectic eccentricity.
Similarly, “Sky is Over” combines jittery piano with fierce guitar and then includes a delightfully surprising breakdown in which Serj warbles “La-la-la” repeatedly. Also, the irresistibly sinister “Lie Lie Lie” uses the sound of a woman’s shriek to great effect.
But for every one of these interesting, unique musical decisions, there’s a chorus that consists of nothing but power-chords or a song that sticks with a standard, dull structure. Strangely enough, this dichotomy works: by juxtaposing the complex and the simple, the stimulating and the bland “Elect the Dead” manages to challenge the listener while retaining a distinctly catchy pop aesthetic.
Few artists succeed in walking this line as well as Serj Tankian. With “Elect the Dead,” he lays the ground for what could be a very rewarding solo career.
Staff writer Nick Scheidies can be reached at verve@collegian.