System of a Down vocalist Serj Tankian has suggested that he will release four full-length albums this year outside of his recently reunited band, each with a different goal. Later, we’ll get one jazz album (Jazz-Iz Christ), one orchestral (Orca), and one electro-western (Fuktronic, with Jimmy Urine of Mindless Self Indulgence). But first there’s Harakiri, a disc with diverse musical influences, but dominated by Tankian’s world-aware lyrics first and foremost.
Tankian has been anything but shy about his social, political, and environmental views, whether in his lyrics, as a poet, or as an activist (he and Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello co-founded a political activism non-profit). On Harakiri, his third solo full-length, these views come in bunches, letting loose wordy screeds about everything from environmental issues to corporate greed to reality TV, all flavored by a sort of epic mysticism. The album works in a world in which discussions of phenomena in the natural world (the title track’s notes on how “the blackbirds, they fell in thousands from the sky”) coexist, even come from the same root as the “civilized” world’s social problems. When Tankian’s idiosyncratic voice wonders aloud, “Why pretend that we don’t know/ that CEOs are the disease?” at the beginning of “Figure It Out”, he’s attempting to force issues into the listener’s face (a theme that recurs endlessly here).
Musically, much of the album toes the line between the build-and-release alt-metal of System of a Down and something a little softer. There’s something about opening track “Cornucopia” that’s vaguely reminiscent of Billy Corgan’s more recent work (perhaps even with Zwan), the rushing multi-guitar pulse, bright vocals on the chorus (“I loved you in the sunshine… I prayed that you’d be all mine”). That said, this being a Tankian song, there’s got to be some political statement in there, and here it’s environmental: “We fuck the earth and don’t know why it cries,” he cringes. The grand nature of the guitars, the hooks, and Tankian’s always strong vocals are a constant, but there are tracks that tend closer to the rapid-fire metal that he first trademarked. “Figure It Out” plunges into a double-bass drum insanity, slippery distorted guitars, and thick bass chugging away, all as Tankian sounds like a carnival barker shouting out world problems through a megaphone.
The Eastern-tinged “Ching Chime” is the first song to stray from the tried-and-true rock world, and it’s one of the weaker tracks on the album. The verses find Tankian finding as many words as he can that rhyme with chime, sounding like a politically minded teenager trying on the angst-y Dylan poster board-dropping look. Hearing the line “Super Bowl halftime/any time is war time” once might be alright, but hearing it multiple times is cringe-worthy.The soft acoustic and plonking synths of “Deafening Silence” are an important shift from the distortion-driven majority of the album, but it fades like a dramatic Radiohead-lite instrumentally, despite more of Tankian’s smooth vocal delivery, backed by chilly female harmonies. When he gets a sort of reggae tone in his vocals for a brief moment in the bridge, the vibe of the pace-changer is lost entirely.
The preacher’s oration style of the lyrics can reach a boiling point for many, particularly when it comes to a song like “Occupied Tears”. A chorus like “don’t you all know/ don’t you all care/ don’t you all see how this is unfair?” may be attempting to spread awareness, but it comes off as self-righteous with this high-production gloss and lines referencing the Holocaust and questions like “How can you just occupy another child’s tears?” But that’s been Tankian’s role all along, and it’s likely brought serious issues to the attention of plenty of young adults over the years. When Tankian sings in a Weird Al-ish smirk lines like “nipples, tongues, testicle juice” on “Reality TV”, it’s for comedic effect, but it immediately draws listeners into the mindset from which he can call out the irreality of the media.
Throughout the album, it seems that Tankian is preparing the listener for something bigger, something serious. On the title track, he lets slip what may be coming: “Father, tell us when is the time to rise,” he cries out, waiting for an answer. While the mystical, natural world shows signs of failing, and Tankian is aware of all of the evil that’s causing it, he’s here to prepare the world for the eventual battle, not necessarily to lead it. Thanks to the flashes of epic, churning, catchy alt-rock, the world will certainly be pumped up and aware of what he sees coming.
Essential Tracks: “Cornucopia”