Orchestrating the Oceans
As the first chord strikes, a somber yet energetic piano arpeggio carries us into Act I of Serj Tankian’s new album Orca. Clarinet slithers down along a steady pulse until strings pull us skyward. Tenderness builds slowly, tense with adventure, before breaking into a cymbal-driven march. The soft swaying leads to an agitated rhythm where loud crashes argue with a spiraling piano. The rain sets in with violins’ caress, and we dash from mystery into bombast and triumph, ending quickly in an explosive tumble.
This is the first full instrumental classical album by Tankian—yes that Serj Tankian—maker of twitchy political heavy metal records galore, be it as a solo artist or as front man of System of a Down. He made his first swim into classical waters with the symphonic reworking of his debut solo record Elect the Dead in 2010 with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, and apparently loved the process. Orca is quite an undertaking and holds its own. Regarding the title, Tankian explained “Orca is known as the killer whale, but is really a dark dolphin, a symbolism for human dichotomy.” The titles of all four acts are all sea-creature related (“Victorius Orcinus,” “Lamentation of the Beached”) but the music itself tells the rest of the story.
Act I is the most complete start to finish, and stands alone as a mini symphony of sorts. It is a blend of large and small, nuanced and broad, which makes it a fitting opening piece. Act II is urgent from the start and rather sad. The high-pitched violin work stands out midway, contemplative and piercing. Act III starts with a melancholy chord progression on piano that could be a pop ballad, but the strings quickly tie it in to the other acts and take it to a hopeful place. Once we’ve bounced along for a bit, we’re pulled along by little whirls across a big sea for the remainder. Act IV clashes between an Eastern noodling and some mischievous clickity-clack. As is the case with two of the other acts, it ends with a jarring finale, breaking the cycle.
This is a fine symphonic work, which shouldn’t be all that shocking if you consider how cleverly arranged and dynamic all of Tankian’s music has been up to this point, although largely reliant on heavy guitars and drums. Thankfully, this move does not appear to be “just a phase.” The album is subtitled Symphony No. 1, perhaps implying that this is only the beginning.