Album Review: Serj Tankian - "Elect the Dead Symphony"
This just didn't work out.
Serj Tankian went to all the trouble of getting his hands on a full orchestra to recreate his solo album "Elect the Dead"...and then didn't have them do anything.
Tankian could have taken the time and really revolutionized his album with layer upon layer of classical or baroque themed music. It could have been fleshed out and turned into an opus of rock and classical synthesis, with each instrument representing a necessary and integral piece of a beautiful, unfolding puzzle. But in a curious decision, none of that happened, and the entire effort sounds dejectedly flat. The performance ends up being Serj solo, over-singing on top of a thin line from a full, and incredibly underutilized, Auckland Philharmonic Orchestra. It sounds like the melodramatic themes from a melodramatic film; a half-baked idea that was nipped in the bud before it had an opportunity to bloom.
The original "Elect the Dead" album isn't a favorite of mine, but at least Serj could and did experiment with many musical themes, ranging from driving percussion to an almost vaudevillian "Lie Lie Lie." It had a healthy amount of thoughtful thematic variety, none of which carries into the "Elect the Dead Symphony," as each track sounds fundamentally similar to the others. All the curiosity and overlapped tones of songs like "Honking Antelope," and "Charades" are stripped entirely. To compound that, Serj sings the same off-kilter parts, so they end up sounding disjointed and awkward in a piece that is, if not adventurous, at least melodic.
To Serj's credit, and I want to take a moment to stress this point, his voice is outstanding. He can cry to the rafters and cultivate emotion just with the tones of his singing. His voice is rich, full and engaging, even when he's singing something ridiculous. His particular brand of singing teeters precariously on the precipice of melodrama, but he makes it work to startling effect.
Still, I wonder if the work could have been more if not for Serj taking center stage? "Elect the Dead" as an album features an arsenal of musical instruments, timings, styles and themes. If the orchestra had not been constrained to the format of the songs as Serj had written (and sings) them, what might have happened? Could the arrangers and musicians have produced a more expansive and robust symphony if they'd been allowed to interpret the music rather than replicate it? This formula worked well for Jaz Coleman, Peter Scholes and the London Philharmonic when recording "Us and Them: the Symphonic Pink Floyd" in 1995, and "Kashmir: Symphonic Led Zeppelin" in '97. A song like "Sky is Over" works acceptably well with a symphony within Serj's constraints, but imagine it with no vocals, and the emotion of the song being played out with a more Liszt-inspired or Bach-infused sense of the dramatic.
The DVD that accompanies the release doesn't really offer anything that the disc doesn't, with the exception that you get the opportunity to see Serj wear a very nice white suit in high definition. The direction is very good, as the director chooses appropriately to cut or dissolve based on the moment in the music, and also to have many close ups of individual instruments during their big moments. This results in a DVD experience that is not boring, and indeed makes the performance go by at a snappy pace. Just don't expect frills or magical moments that you didn't get listening to the music. The live crowd is excited, but not exactly jumping up and down, so the shots of their reactions doesn't really add anything to the atmosphere.
If you're curious enough to want to see the film live and on the big screen, Serj is putting his show on the road between February 19th and March 7th, with showings at theaters all across the country. And don't think your city isn't on the list just because it's tiny, as there are a handful of smaller municipalities getting a crack at this thing (looking at you, Syracuse, NY.)
Ultimately, what could have been an ambitious, trend-breaking effort results in another opportunity for Serj Tankian to talk about himself. And frankly, there's enough of those already.