Serj beyond the System
From symphony to jazz to a haunting film score, here are six solo works by Serj Tankian and why they matter.
October 24, 2017 | by Christopher Atamian
Best known as the lead singer of System of a Down, hard rock demi-God Serj Tankian has fashioned a solo career for himself that is as irreverent, versatile and perhaps surprising as the singer himself. Born in Beirut and educated in Los Angeles Armenian schools, Tankian has stayed close to his roots. His political stances have always drawn their share of the limelight. None more so than his blunt confrontation, in recent years, with Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian about corruption in Armenia and the negative effects it will have on the country’s future if left unchecked.
Musically, everyone knows—or should know—hit SOAD albums such as Toxicity (2001) and Mezmerize (2006). Fewer people have listened to Tankian’s savvy fusion mixes composed with pianist Tigran Hamasyan or his righteous environmental shout outs on Harakiri. So here are six projects that Tankian has led post-SOAD, each one a reason unto itself to continue listening to and watching this wonderfully engaged and erudite musician:
1. 1915 The Movie: Tankian’s first Motion Picture Soundtrack (And it’s fucking awesome!) (2015)
Tankian’s soulful soundtrack to Alec Mouhibian and Garin Hovannisian’s directorial debut. This 2015 feature film stars the beatific Angela Sarafyan and French stalwart Simon Abkarian as a theater director whose play about the Armenian genocide quickly runs amok. From the lyrical Ari im Sokhag and Angela’s Dreams tenderly sung by Larisa Ryan to the plangent, beautiful mourning of We Finally Go Back to 1915, this is an album to be listened to during a long rainy afternoon, or at home with a few good friends—just have a few glasses of raki close at hand.
You can enjoy 1915 The Movie soundtrack by Serj Tankian here.
2. It’s all Classical: Orca Symphony N1 (2012)
Tankian’s fourth studio album enters decidedly into the realm of classical music. While Elect the Dead and Imperfect Harmonies were technically his first forays into the classical realm, Orca remains his first complete symphony. Tankian notes that Orcas or so-called “killer whales” are really dark dolphins, and as such “a symbol for human dichotomy.” Be that as it may, the symphony is divided into four acts. It begins with an optimistic first act (Victorius Orcinus) and ends on the plangent “Lamentation of the beached,” which can also be seen as a metaphor for modern-day humanity.
Orca (Symphony No. 1) by Serj Tankian
3. Disarming Time/The Eye for Sound project: you thought you knew kinesthetic? (2013)
Tankian extends the breadth of his art once more with this project which combines song and painting in ways original and unexpected. Tankian’s “musical paintings,” exhibited at Los Angeles’ Project Gallery, have an ephemeral yet ageless quality to them, relating as they do music, visual art, and the concept of time itself in a series of semi-abstract paintings, some of which possess an actual clock as a background. Kinesthesia indeed: 22 original paintings, mixed media and sculptural works—each one paired with its own music track—use the IOS/Android application Eye for Sound and smartphones that scan and cue the associated audio track and content. Violent Violins, the most striking of these pieces, provides the melodic source material for Creative Armenia’s Seven Notes Music Challenge.
4. Jazz Iz Christ, and Tigran Hamasyan plays Holy Spirit (2013)
This genre-defying fusion album was recorded with jazz phenom Hamasyan, flautist Valeri Tolstov, and trumpet player Tom Duprey. Tankian sings on just 4 of the tracks—the rest are instrumental. With its virtuoso trumpet, guitar and bass sections, Fish Don’t Scream is a whirlwind single, one of my favorite to date—an exceptional mix of pacing, rhythm and moods that will set your listening ear on edge. The heavy metal interludes are amazing rock outs—this one song alone makes the album worth listening to.
Serj Tankian - End of Time from Jazz Iz Christ album (2013)
5. Imperfect Harmonies: Tankian Goes Hybrid (2010)
Despite Tankian’s stated wish to “achieve a whole different sound” on this, his third solo album, the remarkable mix of rock, jazz-electronica and orchestral elements thankfully still sounds enough like previous efforts to continue in the vein of the singer’s signature hard rock melodies and lyrics. As Tankian told Billboard Magazine at the time: ”I made the orchestra rock. I made them go wild.” He remains an acute social commentator who understands the pain of the human condition and screams out loud about the ironies and cruelties of so-called “civilization.” In the album’s first track, “Disowned, Inc.,” he croons:
Laugh at thy neighbor
Pretend you are sane
Just the same
You survived in vain.
Listen to the complete album, Imperfect Harmonies, by Serj Tankian
6. Harakiri (2012): Possibly the Most Important Song You Will Ever Listen To
The powerful lead song to this 2012 album puts Tankian square and front in the battle for the planet’s survival, a righteous yet melodic and tender rock lullaby that warns us one last time that we are headed quickly towards extinction as a planet and race: pollution, nuclear war, environmental disasters, all products of stupidity and hate. The video also recalls Emerson’s famous dictum that “The human race will die from civilization” and reminds us that we have not known a period of peace since…2925 B.C.! So next time a demagogue threatens to nuke a foreign “enemy,” they might want to heed this:
We're the day birds
Deciding to fly against the sky
Within our dreams, we all wake up
To kiss the ones who are born to die.
The lead song of 2012 album - Harakiri
Christopher Atamian is a native New Yorker. An alumnus of Harvard University, Columbia Business School and USC Film School, he has written and translated seven books and produced several award-winning plays and films, including the 2006 Trouble in Paradise.