No Toxicity, Just Toxic
No one left System of a Down during their hiatus in 2005 with more goodwill than singer Serj Tankian. Once the man with a voice (and passionate, political lyrics) that was his group’s driving characteristic, he had been flat-out neutered by the band’s pair of #1 albums in 2005, Mesmerize and Hypnotize.
On those two albums, Tankian split a distracting and confounding amount of the songwriting and vocal duties with guitarist Daron Malakian, who delivered such winning couplets as “Such a lonely day, and it’s mine / The most loneliest day of my life.” Seriously, have you listened to those albums in a while? It’s amazing what a total misstep allowing Malakian to take on more of the lead was, as SOAD went from a schizophrenic, edge-of-your-seat alt-metal band, to a middle of the road radio-rock outfit by the time of their hiatus.
The point is, Tankian—left to his own devices—should have been a winning idea. Yet, we’re three albums and five years in. Did you know that there have been three solo albums, live EPs, a couple of remix records, and a complete mindfuck of a detour into symphony work? (Think a slightly less comprehensible S&M on second record Imperfect Harmonies.) And you have to wonder what is going on with Tankian’s career, especially now that System of a Down have been playing shows again for more than a year.
The results on third album Harakiri (which is a Japanese form of ritualistic suicide) don’t exactly answer those questions. Tankian brings back the punk-rock base of SOAD’s early music, but none of the metal, which results in the most confusing, drab, inexplicable pop-punk album I’ve heard in years. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s all bad, though.
Take opening track “Cornucopia”, which would sound right in between sets on the Warped Tour. It’s a straight up melodic punk love song. He actually sings, “I love you / in the stormy weather.” We’re a long, long way from Toxicity, gang. At least it throws away a couple of lines towards Tankian’s never dormant political side (“We fuck the earth, and don’t know why it cries!”). The song switches up the beat every 45 seconds or so, a nod to the prog-symphonics of Imperfect Harmonies and moves on.
That’s more or less what Harakiri gives you. On “Figure It Out”, Serj pulls out the ol’ “Talk-singing your lyrics through a megaphone, thus making your words more obscured” trick from Ye Olde Alt Rock Cliches. Seriously, when’s the last time anyone thought this was a cool idea?
All this said, there are only a couple of truly indefensible moments on Harakiri. He straight up scats and comes close to freestyling on “Ching Chime”. It’s the kind of tune System of a Down would piss away and get out of their system back in the day. Instead, Tankian takes it seriously, as if it’s a real, meaningful song, and it goes past four unlistenable minutes. “Occupied Tears”, which goes from beats to lounge music, seems like a failed attempt at launching a Mike Patton-esque solo career. The payoff for the beatbox-laden “Deafening Silence” never comes.
It’s annoying when Tankian fails, because he’s still got one of rock’s most compelling voices, capable of selling any ham-fisted, campus liberal line when he’s truly into it. Plus, the music behind it isn’t half bad. There’s very little metal to it, but hearing Serj’s voice over a straight up punk-rock record is a great idea, if he’d commited to it. “Uneducated Democracy” is the most ragged song on this album, and it’s no coincidence that it’s the only song that feels like it might actually go somewhere on an album that wastes so much of it’s time throwing the kitchen sink at you. Yet it comes up totally predictable.
Maybe that’s why early System of a Down records were such a success. They felt dangerous, yet balanced and melodic enough that you felt as if you could sneak them past your mom. Tankian’s gone so far down the rabbit hole on Harakiri, it has to worry you whether the group, which has kept it’s fans waiting at least seven years for new material, might have lost that balance on what now sound like self-indulgent side-projects in the wake of their return.