Serj Tankian: Elect the Dead

Not as good as Mezmerize but better than Hypnotize, the solo debut by the System of a Down frontman will surprise many by just how strong it is.

Serj Tankian

Elect the Dead

Label: Reprise
US Release Date: 2007-10-23
UK Release Date: 2007-10-22

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.





The Kinks and Their Bad-Mannered English Decency

Mark Doyles biography of the Kinks might complement a seminar in British culture. Its tone and research prove its intent to articulate social critique through music for the masses.


ONO Confronts American Racial Oppression with the Incendiary 'Red Summer'

Decades after their initial formation, legendary experimentalists ONO have made an album that's topical, vital, uncomfortable, and cathartic. Red Summer is an essential documentation of the ugliness and oppression of the United States.


Silent Women Filmmakers No Longer So Silent: Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers

The works of silent filmmakers Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers were at risk of being forever lost. Kino Lorber offers their works on Blu-Ray. Three cheers for film historians and film restoration.


Rush's 'Permanent Waves' Endures with Faultless Commercial Complexity

Forty years later, Rush's ability to strike a nearly perfect balance between mainstream invitingness and exclusory complexity is even more evident and remarkable. The progressive rock classic, Permanent Waves, is celebrating its 40th anniversary.


Drum Machines? Samples? Brendan Benson Gets Contemporary with 'Dear Life'

Powerpop overlord and part-time Raconteur, Brendan Benson, grafts hip-hop beats to guitar pop on his seventh solo album, Dear Life.


'Sell You Everything' Brings to Light Buzzcocks '1991 Demo LP' That Passed Under-the-Radar

Cherry Red Records' new box-set issued in memory of Pete Shelley gathers together the entire post-reunion output of the legendary Buzzcocks. Across the next week, PopMatters explores the set album-by-album. First up is The 1991 Demo LP.


10 Key Tracks From the British Synthpop Boom of 1980

It's 40 years since the first explosion of electronic songs revitalized the UK charts with futuristic subject matter, DIY aesthetics, and occasionally pompous lyrics. To celebrate, here's a chronological list of those Moog-infused tracks of 1980 that had the biggest impact.

Reading Pandemics

Poe, Pandemic, and Underlying Conditions

To read Edgar Allan Poe in the time of pandemic, we need to appreciate a very different aspect of his perspective—not that of a mimetic artist but of the political economist.


'Yours, Jean' Is a Perfect Mixture of Tragedy, Repressed Desire, and Poor Impulse Control

Lee Martin's Yours, Jean is a perfectly balanced and heartbreaking mix of true crime narrative and literary fiction.


The 60 Best Albums of 2007

From tech house to Radiohead and Americana to indie and everything in between, the 60 best albums of 2007 included many of the 2000s' best albums.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Solitude Stands in the Window: Thoreau's 'Walden'

Henry David Thoreau's Walden as a 19th century model for 21st century COVID-19 quarantine.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Will COVID-19 Kill Movie Theaters?

Streaming services and large TV screens have really hurt movie theaters and now the coronavirus pandemic has shuttered multiplexes and arthouses. The author of The Perils of Moviegoing in America, however, is optimistic.

Gary D. Rhodes, Ph.D
Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.