It always happens. Whenever a band achieves commercial and critical success, once they become a respected band that people look up to, there’s always one member of said band who decides to head off on his or her own to do a one-off solo project. Even worse, these solo projects turn out to be nothing more than vapid exercises in self-indulgence where, freed from the restraints of the old band and the critical ears of the bandmates, the artist does whatever the heck he wants to do, just because he finally can. Rock ‘n’ roll music is littered with such pretentious pieces of musical tripe: from John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Two Virgins, to Mick Jagger’s She’s the Boss, to David Lee Roth’s Crazy From the Heat, few artists have been able to step away momentarily from their bands and put together a top-notch solo effort.
System of a Down singer Serj Tankian is the latest to try such a stunt. His band is now regarded as one of the most important and vital metal acts today, one of the only contemporary metal bands who have been able to both take the genre into exciting new directions and achieve commercial success at the same time. Their 2001 album Toxicity was a landmark record for the band, and while we wait to hear whether or not System of a Down can take their music to an even higher level, Tankian has given his fans an album called Serart to experience for the time being.
Serart, though, is not just Tankian alone; he’s teamed up with noted Armenian avant-garde artist and multi-instrumentalist Arto Tuncboyaciyan for this little sonic adventure. Hence the obvious title, a contraction of both men’s first names. The two met in 2000, and Arto was asked to perform on the outro instrumental at the end if the Toxicity album. Like Mike Patton’s work with Mr. Bungle and Tomahawk, Tankian wants to head off in a completely different direction while on his own, and Arto, who has appeared on more than 200 albums, and has worked with such jazz luminaries as Chet Baker and Al DiMeola, is just the man to have at his side. Together, the pair take the casual System of a Down fan on an unsettling, befuddling, strangely appealing journey through world music and electronic beats. There are no Ozzfest anthems where these guys are headed.
The interesting thing about Serart is, it’s all spontaneous, recorded in a mere six days, with minimal overdubs, yet it’s not always the colossal mess you might expect. The result sounds like someone flipping through various satellite music channels: there are hints of metal, drum and bass, trip hop, spoken word, Armenian, Chinese, African, and South American music, myriad sounds seeming to appear haphazardly throughout the 45-minute CD. “Cinema” starts off sounding like a mix of tabla and drum and bass, with sudden bursts of jazz saxophone and vocal samples, before veering off into a Japanese musical theme for a few bars, then segueing into a metal-goes-tribal sound. “Devil’s Wedding” is considerably more focused, with its blend of African rhythms, chanted vocals, and techno beats, while “Black Melon” features both Arto’s mesmerizing voice and some whispered poetry by Tankian. The terrific “Leave Melody Counting Fear” utilizes both acoustic guitar and the Chinese string instrument called a guchin, all backed up by a languid trip-hop beat. “Save the Blonde” blends world beat with contemporary electronic music, while “Claustrophobia” is a spoken word performance by Tankian, who is accompanied by Arto on flute.
Easily the most accessible song on the album is “Narina”, which sounds like Portishead gone Middle Eastern, as both Arto and guest vocalist Jenna Ross weave a spell on the listener, their voices intertwining over the hypnotic rhythm track. A song like this proves that the album was much more than throwing garbage at a wall and seeing what stuck; underneath the craziness are a handful of songs that are beautifully crafted. Serart isn’t a perfect album by any stretch, but it does prove to be more rewarding the more you listen to it, and one can only hope that Tankian can continue to work in some of that same crazed ambition in his regular band, who are on the cusp of greatness. In the meantime, if Serart can show just one hardcore nu-metal fan the vast array of musical styles there are on the planet beyond the crunchy guitars, then the project will have been a successful one.