Outside of Zach De La Rocha, I don’t think there exists a more passionately political figure in music than Serj Tankian, front man of the long dormant System of a Down (how dormant? Serj is now two solo albums away from matching the band’s entire catalogue). He’s founded an activist group with former Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello and never misses a moment, be it at concerts or on the Internet, to share his views on global events, government policy, and corporate culture. His newest album Harakiri stands to be a polarizing work, as much manifesto and the work of a maestro, and your personal enjoyment will most likely hinge heavily on just how much you side with Serj’s unique view of global politics.
That’s not to say the album doesn’t offer anything from a musical standpoint. Serj has been steadily expanding away from the sound of his former band after his first solo album, and Harakiri finds him at his most diverse. “Ching Chime” sounds like the background to a Bollywood film, with a great exotic groove and a driving sitar riff, even if the lyrics are so stream of consciousness, inscrutable, and shackled to rhyming with “chime” that they detract from the overall package. “Occupied Tears” and “Deafening Silence”, with their brooding synths, sound rather Depeche Mode, and several tracks feature a rough, drum heavy punk sensibility, even if they rely on SOAD’s tried and true “loud, soft, loud, soft” dynamics.
But the lyrics, for the most part, are surprisingly blunt, and every single track tackles some facet of the political climate, from the dire (global warming and the environment on “Cornucopia”) to the domestic (American ignorance on “Uneducated Democracy”) to the mundane (celebrity obsession on “Reality TV”). The later, with its wink and nod take and winding sitar, stands out as one of the albums highlights, if only for the lines “I abhor the whore who calls herself reality, reality TV” and “Nipples / Tongues / Testical juice”. “Cornucopia” also excels with its echoing arpeggios and mix of bewildering lyrics (“Kiss an ugly turtle and make it cry”) with a crowbar to the head chorus (“We fuck the earth and don’t know why it cries”).
Despite the musical variety, however, the album tends to blend together past the mid-point, and while Serj has a talent to avoid coming off as preachy even at his most political, it’s hard to not feel a bit talked down to after listening to 45 minutes of political protest, especially when it’s this direct. Looking at the political climate of today versus that of the 2007 when he released Elect the Dead, I can understand the sense that we’re past the point of subtlety, but I find Serj’s approach on tracks like “Empty Walls” from Elect the Dead to be more effective, thanks to their reliance on more slant truth (and brilliantly subversive music videos).
I still enjoyed Harakiri; Serj’s sweeping arrangements still impress, and the album’s not without a few gems. But the overall product could have done with more of Serj’s unique poetic voice and less directness, even if I do agree with a lot of what he’s saying. Fans of Serj (and to a lesser extend SOAD) will want to check it out for sure, but those with an aversion to political rock or Serj’s previous works aren’t going to find much to like here.
Overall Grade: B-