The most impressive thing about Serj Tankian’s 2007 solo debut Elect the Dead was just how controlled it was. How many times have we seen a lead singer from a well-known band helm a musical project of his own only to put out a piece of work that was too self-indulgent and unfocused to even compare to his band’s past work? It happens so often that it’s as tiresome a cliché as when a popular young band’s second album sounds darker because it was written on the road and all the success has made them, like, all jaded and stuff. In Tankian’s case, despite having complete creative control over an album for the first time in forever, not to mention the fact that he’s always been one of the more eccentric songwriters in heavy rock with System of a Down, Elect the Dead was incredibly disciplined and consistent, enough to outshine his band’s 2005 album Hypnotize. Sure, it had the kind of goofy rants and infantile rhyming schemes that prompt us to roll our eyes a little bit (certainly not the first time we’d ever heard that from Tankian), but it was an otherwise fun record that didn’t stray too far from the System of a Down template.
With the release of Tankian’s new live album, however, perhaps we shouldn’t have been so hasty in praising the guy’s self-restraint. It’s all there in the title: Elect the Dead Symphony: Featuring the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. That’s right, an hour long CD of concert excerpts that feature the nasal-voiced singer fronting a 70-piece orchestra, performing re-arranged versions of songs from that 2007 album. Heaven help us.
Metal bands recording live albums with full orchestras are commonplace these days, and are often marvelously executed, with recent recordings by Therion, Within Temptation, and Epica being three very good examples, but Tankian takes an entirely different approach. Instead of accentuating his normal backing band with an orchestral score, Elect the Dead Symphony is just he and the aforementioned New Zealand orchestra, the only holdover from his band being guitarist Dan Monti, who politely strums an acoustic guitar during the proceedings. It’s a daring move, one that could have yielded exceptional results under different circumstances, but despite the sincere efforts of everyone involved, the entire performance falls totally flat.
One positive aspect that should be noted is the daring orchestration by John Psathas. Unlike the utterly bombastic score by the late Michael Kamen on Metallica’s muddled 1999 symphonic effort S&M, Psathas, with the help of Tankian, does his best to take a more understated approach. And for a few tracks, it works somewhat decently, “Elect the Dead”, “Saving Us”, and “Feed Us” tastefully performed by everyone involved. Unfortunately, the rest is a gigantic toss-off. The plain fact is, practically every facet of Tankian’s music doesn’t lend itself well to the classical genre at all. His Zappa-esque song structures might sound great when pulled off with loud electric guitars and propulsive drums, but stripped away of all the aggression, everything’s reduced to sounding borderline comical. The crescendoing chorus of “Money” becomes a gigantic mess of cacophonous strings and horns. “Baby” fails at providing listeners with a touch of Weimar cabaret. The self-serious “Beethoven’s Cunt” bombs, the one track on the album that is marred by a bluntly written score.
In the end, though, what sinks Elect the Dead Symphony the most is Tankian’s voice. He’s a tremendous rock vocalist, a personal favorite of this writer, but he’s totally unsuited for such a stripped down performance as this. His braying voice sounds self-parodical when it should sound heartfelt, and the vocal patterns of his songs waver so wildly from octave to octave that it quickly sounds ridiculous when backed up by Psathas’s often majestic scores. If that wasn’t enough, new track “Gate 21” is an atrocious piano ballad, while portions of “The Charade” sound like rapid-fire versions of Mike Myers’ hilarious Beat poetry from So I Married an Axe Murderer. Which, considering the efforts by the white-suited Tankian to come across as serious and genteel, is exactly the opposite of how he should be sounding.