An unusually controlled, understated release from SOAD’s frontman
Out of everyone to emerge from the fratty, downtuned world of nu metal, Serj Tankian might be the most ambitious. From fronting an orchestra to organizing protests, Serj Tankian, along with his bandmates in System of a Down, has always been a bit headier than his contemporaries (with all due respect to Fred Durst). In 2001, just a month after the release of SOAD’s Toxicity, he even put out a collection of poems called Cool Gardens, published by MTV Books. Now, Tankian has released Cool Gardens Poetry Suite, a spoken word record on which he recites all 87 of the poems featured in the book, this time accompanied by music.
SOAD fans will be pleased to discover that Tankian’s poetry isn’t all that different from his lyrics. A lot of the same themes crop up—mass incarceration, globalism, addiction—as well as the same propensity for Zappaesque potty humor. Juvenile quips like “I have no desire to wipe my ass anymore” are occasionally cringe-inducing, but it’s nevertheless amusing to hear them alongside political diatribes and pontifications on the nature of art itself, like on “Les Melodies.”
Vocally, Tankian is more reserved than ever on this project. He almost never raises his voice, eschewing the furious, impassioned delivery he’s known for in favor of something more controlled and understated. Even as the pace of his speech and the emotional charge of his words grow in intensity, like on “Percussion,” he resists slipping into a frenzied rant, he instead, commands people’s attention with a stern tone of voice and careful enunciation.
But the main factor in how well Tankian’s words hold up off the page is, of course, the music. As the man himself puts it, the music allows the poems to “dance into the auditory canals of listeners… sweetened by intimate musical landscapes.”
Tankian’s poetry is certainly “sweetened” by the music at hand, especially on the first couple tracks, but it’s questionable whether or not it even requires sweetening in the first place. His poems, once again, like his lyrics, are full of righteous anger, metaphysical musings and crass jokes. For the first couple tracks, this verbal content is accompanied by ethereal strings, piano and occasionally a soft acoustic guitar. It’s melodic and pretty but not quite distinct enough to stand on its own or to do justice to the sheer weirdness of Tankian’s words.
The music doesn’t begin to distinguish itself until the album’s third cut, “Percussion,” with its intense tribal drums and symphonic synths, and it only becomes something truly special on the final piece, “Disarming Time: A Modern Piano Concerto.” This cut shifts constantly. A serene piano melody is soon overtaken by sweeping horns, themselves soon overtaken by a robotic warble overlaid with glimmering female vocals. These are overtaken again by B-movie synths before the track finally ends as a slice of bouncing, carnivalesque industrial. For the first time, Tankian’s music is every bit as perverse and anarchic as his poems, enhancing their effect while providing the listener with a set of textures and grooves they’ll actually want to hear again.
Cool Gardens Poetry Suite could stand to be more consistent, but there are enough good sequences to make it an admirable addition to Tankian’s eclectic discography. The album’s defining moment appears on “Percussion,” when the artist addresses the listener head-on: “Here’s the fucking point, people,” he says. “Nations and their governments should protect and serve its citizens, not the interests of the multinational corporations.” It’s not a particularly revelatory point, especially for Tankian, but it’s still a point worth making again and again. And Cool Gardens Poetry Suite reminds us that he intends to keep doing just that.