Serj Tankian’s iconic voice has always polarised my feelings about System Of A Down. Wavering between deep-throated Metal gargling and comedic faux-operatic, Tankian’s tones are unmissable, even when layered on top of industrial-grade guitar riffs.
More recently Tankian has experimented with a debut solo album – Elect the Dead – that has polarised fans and critics. Some see it as a lyrical, artistic take on SOAD’s standard flavour, while others see it as devoid of the SOAD energy and nothing but a protest platform for Tankian. Personally I see it somewhere in between. I enjoyed the progression of Baby, but Saving Us just annoyed me.
When the guys from Logitech Ultimate Ears (Serj uses Ultimate Ears monitors when he’s playing on stage) invited me to see Serj Tankian teaming up with the Auckland Philharmonic Orchestra to perform songs from Elect The Dead, I was intrigued. Would it be a Metallica-esque effort, with a rock band fronting the orchestra, or a more “pure” orchestral arrangement? Tankian went for the latter, with the single concession being acoustic guitar and backing vocals from Dan Monti, a member of “The FCC”, his backing band for live solo performances.
The result was mind-bending. The vibe was amazing, from the moment Serj walked on stage, a dapper apparition in white suit against the black orchestra. Dare I say that Tankian’s dramatic, almost operatic vocals were a better fit with the orchestra than they ever were fronting a metal band? Opening with Empty Walls, the full orchestra lent buckets of gravitas to what was previously a basic backing-track for Serj’s protest vocals. Tankian’s stage presence helped him prance, stomp, and generally over-act his way through Lie, Lie, Lie – the crowd laughed as he marched in place like so many stage show performers have done.
Some tracks were a more difficult fit for the orchestra, with Money’s speed-metal-noise breaks resulting in a wall of messy noise when translated to an orchestral arrangement. It just didn’t work. A better arrangement was used in Baby, with the cello and double-bass belting out the metal riffs with such force that even I was forced to throw up my horns.
The juxtaposition of yoof metallers with the orchestra community resulted in the inevitable brilliance. Among the best moments was the roar of the crowd when the tuba player displayed a very tentative pair of horns (a closed fist with forefinger and pinkie raised) as he took his seat. The enthusiasm of one young long-haired fellow in the well-mannered moshpit was boundless: he emulated the conductor throughout the entire concert, with the exception being firmly clasped horns with both fists.
In what seemed to be enforced education, Tankian left the stage and allowed the orchestra to play their own genre of music several times throughout the show. The crowd tolerated this well, although most seemed to take these breaks as an opportunity to use the bathroom or chat amongst themselves. I felt like a scowling old man as I wondered why these kids couldn’t sit quietly through a 3 minute concerto.
The only major cognitive dissonance was produced when the concert stopped after 5 or 6 songs, the house lights came up, and the experienced members in the crowd wandered off for intermission drinks. The moshpit didn’t know whether to bay for blood at such a short concert, or start chanting and stomping for an encore. Eventually a voice came over the PA announcing an intermission.
Tankian’s enthusiasm was obvious. He praised the setting, the orchestra, and the home-away-from-home crowd several times. Overall the concert was hugely entertaining. I’m not sure how well it will translate to album or DVD, but for a one-off live event, I’m glad I was there.