Serj Tankian, lead singer for System of a Down, may be one of the most politically active figures in music - a member of Amnesty International, an advocate of free speech, a vocal critic of the current administration - but even he can get tired of democracy.
“With System, it’s a process where four people have to agree on what songs to use,” Tankian said, explaining his decision to release his first solo album. “When you’re doing it by yourself, all the decisions come and go with you.”
He’s not kidding: “Elect the Dead,” due Oct. 23, features almost nobody but Tankian. Though System of a Down drummer John Dolmayan appears on one song, and a handful of session musicians sit in on other tracks, nearly all the instruments - piano, guitars, bass, synthesizers - were played by Tankian. He produced it himself and is releasing it on his own label, Serjical Strike Records.
In some ways, the album is a natural sequel to “Mezmerize” and “Hypnotize,” the two wildly ambitious albums System of a Down released in 2005. Once again, there are plenty of hard-rock rhythms, operatic arias and the melismatic vocal lines that reflect Tankian’s Armenian heritage (which he shares with all the members of System). There are also some tough issues at hand. The song “Unthinking Majority” asserts, “I believe that you’re wrong, insinuating they hold the bomb,” a reference to Iraq or Iran or “perhaps both,” Tankian suggested. And the album’s overall lyrics reflect a deep dissatisfaction with current events.
But the disc is also fairly introspective, often conflating the personal with the political. When Tankian sings, “Why do we sit around and break each other’s hearts tonight?” (on the song “Saving Us”) it’s hard to tell whether he’s addressing a lover or all humankind.
Speaking by phone from his home in Los Angeles, Tankian described this album as “more philosophical than political.” His thoughts, he said, tended toward larger ideas of civilization, history and the sustainability of life on the planet, though he tried to avoid preaching. “I never use the words `global warming,’” Tankian said. “Any time you use cliches or key words, it raises thoughts and feelings that you think or don’t think. I’d rather have you come in with a clean palette.”
So what about the title track, “Elect the Dead?” Despite its title, it sounds almost like a love song. “Death we know comes for us alive,” Tankian sings, “but all I want is you.”
“I’ve heard a lot of interpretations on what `Elect the Dead’ might mean,” Tankian said. And though he didn’t offer his own, he cited one of his favorites: “Maybe the people who are the victims of the epitome of civilization should be the ones who elect our next leaders.”