While Serj Tankian‘s latest album might sound to many people like a big departure from his previous releases — and it is a bold step forward that embraces everything from classical to jazz — it’s not as radical as one might initially think if one connects the musical dots. The eclectic Armenian-American metal singer (as well as the band that made him famous, System Of A Down) has always brought a variety of influences and instrumentation into his music, and with Imperfect Harmonies he has taken out nearly all electric instrumentation to focus on an intense orchestral work. But it all makes sense.
After System Of A Down went on hiatus, Tankian recorded a solo album (Elect The Dead) that was similar in spirit to SOAD with some slight differences. Then he released a critically acclaimed, live orchestral version of the same work (Elect the Dead Symphony) that transformed the original songs by, as All Music’s Gregory Heaney noted, “substituting aggression for beauty to turn the album into a work that is simultaneously familiar and completely new.” The new Imperfect Harmonies often echoes the bombast of heavy metal acoustically; the music sounds heavy because of the dissonance and powerful brass sections. “Absolutely, yeah,” he concurs while speaking to A.D.D. “I’m trying to make the heaviness appear through the orchestra. I basically want the orchestra to be the electric guitar.”
All of this recent aural evolution begs the question: What’s next, an Armenian folk album? “Why not?” he replies, laughing. “I don’t know musically what the next thing is right now, but I think because this record had 150 to 200 tracks per session, I might go a bit more minimalist on the next one. Maybe go in the opposite direction and do an acoustic record or jazz instrumental record. Something fun.” Tankian certainly has eclectic taste, as shown in his recent Digital Playlist.
Although Tankian is known for his socio-political lyrical ruminations, two of the most intriguing songs on Imperfect Harmonies are “Gate 21” and “Yes, It’s Genocide,” which are personal rather than political statements. In the case of the latter track, the lyrics are in Armenian. “It is like a mantra that repeats over and over again,” says Tankian. “They’re not really political, they’re just very emotional. It relates to victims of that kind of holocaust and genocide and applies to all. It feels personal, it doesn’t feel political. ‘Gate 21’ is definitely personal.”
In terms of what the actual Gate 21 is, he offers, “It could be many things. It could be a gate at airport where someone’s leaving or could be a relationship or could be a train station. [But it comes from] personal experience obviously. Relationship experience.”
A lot of rockers get into that rut where they fret about what their audience is going to think, but Tankian does not seem to worry about it. “It’s not brain surgery,” he declares. “We’re not going to leave our scalpels behind in someone’s head, so no one’s going to die here. It’s going to be fine. It’s music. But I do understand that it is a lot tougher to change between records because you have to go against the grain and work a lot harder through the label and [deal with] all the expectations and the radio promotion and explain how you want things done. It’s a challenge. It’s not easy on the business end, but you’ve got to do something new and learn something new as an artist and grow every time and add to art instead of repeating yourself. Otherwise, what’s the point?”
“I might go a bit more minimalist on the next one. Maybe go in the opposite direction and do an acoustic record or jazz instrumental record. Something fun.”
Another project that Tankian has been involved with is Prometheus Bound, a musical re-enactment of the Greek tragedy for which he is composing the music. The book is by Tony and Grammy Award-winning playwright and lyricist Steven Sater, who wrote the Tony-winning Spring Awakening with composer Duncan Sheik. Prometheus Bound will be directed by Diane Paulus and presented at the acclaimed American Repertory Theater in Boston. It will be premiering on February 25th, 2011. “A.R.T. is great,” declares Tankian. “They’re a phenomenal theater organization, and I’ve enjoyed working with them.”
The singer says collaborating on the show has been a great learning experience for him. “I’ve been using a lot of my archives, a lot of different types of music that I had already put together for underscoring and what not,” he explains. “It’s quite diverse, from noise to jazz to electronic stuff to hip-hop songs to rock songs to cool, piano dark underscores, and that’s a whole different bag of tricks there because it’s always evolving. Unlike a film score that’s very linear and you get a scene to score for, this is something where you do another workshop and one song is gone, that underscore changes to 20 seconds and they need something else on the spot. Everything’s always changing until the show comes, so it’s quite interesting.”
As if all of this were not enough, another recent achievement in Tankian’s career was playing Armenia this past August for the first time in his life. “It was fucking amazing,” he enthuses. “I think it was the first modern rock show that they’ve had, and they were just crazy. There was a full press conference of 200 people. It was just madness. It was beautiful, it was awesome. It’s my third time in the country and the first time I’ve gone there professionally and played, and I’m noticing a lot of the change. A lot of it has to do with that input from the diasporan community — from Europe, from the U.S. and from all over the world — and people coming in and investing and trying new ideas and
new things. At first there is the corruption they
have to deal with it — the ex-Soviet technocratic
corruption and mafioso kind of bullshit — but
eventually they’re finding ways [to change].”