Great musicians often leave fans, and themselves, guessing. Vocalist, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Serj Tankian has spent his entire career exploring music, plays, poems — all in search of things that make sense to him in a world of chaos and disorder.
In System of a Down, he’s dabbled in thrashy, funky, experimental metal tinged with Armenian hooks, only to broaden his horizons even further on three solo albums that incorporate elements of prog, Greek and Middle Eastern music, classical and classic rock. Along the way, he has addressed weighty subjects of concern to him, from global warming to political unrest and war, but has also found room to write about sex, spirituality and surreal jibberish.
Tankian’s fourth and best solo album, Harakiri, includes plenty of political commentary, but Tankian free-associates so wildly that the beauty of his language becomes as appealing as the subject matter. On the Smashing Pumpkins-meets-Pixies lunacy of “Cornucopia” (a song about environmental abuse), Tankian’s emphatically sings the chorus, “I loved you in the sunshine, you chased the moon with a spear/ I pray that you will be all mine, you foam at the mouth and disappear.”
In loose terms, Harakiri is rooted in punk, metal and alternative. “Fuck, Let’s Figure it Out” sounds like a cross between The Real Thing-era Faith No More and the carnival barking of Ministry’s “Jesus Built My Hotrod” without ripping off either. Elsewhere, Tankian stretches the boundaries to incorporate other music styles. “Ching Chime,” for example, features sing-songy (almost rapped) wordplay overlapping Asian and Middle Eastern instrumentation. Throughout, Tankian thrives on unpredictability, leaving the listener guessing when a crushing riff will drop off a cliff and be replaced by a shuffling jazz midsection, and when that, in turn, will transition into something rocky and elliptical or even electronic.
If it sounds like Tankian has found his comfort zone, don’t count on it: Ever the free spirit, he has already announced plans to record three new albums in the near future, individually rooted in jazz, orchestral music and electro-funk. The search goes on.