System of a Down surprised many when they announced that the band was going on hiatus in the fall of 2006. It wasn’t exactly a thrilling prospect for a record label; after all, here’s a band that released two albums in 2005 that debuted at number one, has a very loyal fanbase, and a reputation for touring extensively. In a day and age when real moneymakers in the music business are becoming more and more scarce, this was one meal ticket the suits would dearly miss milking dry, yet you have to hand it to the band for taking a well-timed breather. With Mezmerize and Hypnotize coming six months apart, which in turn led to an arena tour and a co-headlining spot on OzzFest, the risk of overkill was definitely there, so it’s easy to understand why the Los Angeles band would feel the need to recharge before the whole machine would run itself into the ground.
While guitarist Daron Malakian has been rather silent over the last year or so (his Scars on Broadway project expected to see the light of day sometime later in 2008) the same can’t be said for singer Serj Tankian. Always active in projects, be they musical (his Serjical Strike record label and 2003’s Serart album), literary (2002’s book of poetry Cool Gardens), or politically driven (his non-profit organization Axis of Justice), it seems you can’t go very long without hearing from him, and indeed, he’s managed to appease System of a Down fans in 2007 with his long-awaited solo debut. Unlike Serart, though, whose collaboration with Turkish-Armenian musician Arto Tunçboyacıyan challenged listeners with its fusion of rock, jazz, and world music, Elect the Dead treads more familiar territory, which will thrill fans, while at the same time never hesitating to throw the odd curveball their way.
Whenever a well-known singer from a famous rock band steps out on his or her own for the first time, the urge to exercise artistic control usually results in a scattershot piece of work that tends to overreach. But while Tankian’s debut does come perilously close to flying off the handle, there’s a surprising amount of self-restraint on the record, not to mention enough consistent songwriting to convince us he’d do just fine if he ever decided to go solo permanently. Aside from a handful of guest musicians who pop in from time to time (including System’s John Dolmayan on drums), Tankian handles the majority of instrumental work himself, and while the distinct, muscular crunch of Malakian’s riffs are not there, there’s a more richly layered feel to this album, the more eclectic moments sounding more graceful than forced.
Take “The Sky is Over”, for instance, whose blend of ornate piano, lavish orchestral rock, and Queen style operatic tangents makes for a disarmingly enjoyable mini-opus, Tankian’s delivery controlled enough to let his gentle vocal melody carry the song during the soaring chorus, but not before tossing in some sly, typically heavy-handed political commentary (“Your not-so-gentle persuasion / Has been known to wreck economies of countries”). “Honking Antelope” features some of Tankian’s most nuanced songwriting to date; for a song with such an enigmatic title, it’s actually a phenomenal midtempo ballad in the vein of “Toxicity”, the simple, foreboding open guitar chords underscored by piano and strings. Meanwhile, “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” dabbles in electronic beats and Primus-like, synth-driven funk, while “Baby” and “Saving Us” are bold for different reasons, Tankian delving into more personal themes, the chorus of the former so straightforward, we wonder if he’s being ironic, until his impassioned delivery convinces us otherwise.
Elect the Dead isn’t without its share of more aggressive fare, and not only will fans will gravitate to those songs most quickly, but a few of them manage to hold up against anything System of a Down has put out previously. “Empty Walls” is such a track, as Tankian gives the pounding track more of a spacious feel, guitars taking a back seat to Tankian’s multi-faceted vocal performance without compromising the song’s visceral power. “The Unthinking Majority” combines fierce thrash verses with interludes that sound part Weimar cabaret and Armenian folk music, “Feed Us” expertly works the quiet-loud-quiet-loud formula, while “Lie Lie Lie” isn’t far away from Mesmerize/Hypnotize‘s more experimental moments, but this time, we get some capable background vocals from female singer Darin Noubar instead of the nasal whine of Malakian.
As with any System of a Down album, a little of Tankian’s Elect the Dead lyrics go a long way, his predilection towards overly logorrheic verses sometimes getting the best of him, and his bluntness sometimes going a bit overboard, as on the rant “Money”. For the most part, though, he’s more disciplined than he’s aver sounded throughout the entire disc, not allowing his personality distract from the richness of the musical arrangements. One of the more pleasant surprises of the fall, this album is brave, mature, and energetic enough to have us hoping he’s got a follow-up inside him.