Music

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
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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.

7

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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