A known eccentric takes a dip in calmer waters
When most people think of Serj Tankian, their mind conjures up images of a wide-eyed anticapitalist shouting from a stage. They may ponder some of the more absurd lyrical choices he’s made throughout the years, such as “banana terracotta, terracotta pie” or the silly song titles like “Beethoven’s Cock.” Whatever one imagines, it likely isn’t a man conducting a gorgeous, restrained symphony. Somehow, this is exactly what Tankian delivers with his Cinematique series (Illuminate and Violent Violins).
The Cinematique series marks an unorthodox break for Tankian. There are certainly elements of the absurd within the project. Song titles like “Flying Phone Medley,” “Prelude to a Diss” and “Pretty Cinematique of You” raise eyebrows, as does the title of the second half of the project Violent Violins. But for all these oddities, the project is relatively straight-laced. It never really goes out of its way to make people uncomfortable or perplexed. But when stripped of all that makes him such a recognizable figure in the world of music, is Tankian’s music still essential?
If we’re going strictly by the word essential, then the answer is no. But not all good music is essential (and in some rarer cases, not all essential music is good), and Cinematique is pretty good. Tracks like “Bellissimo Piannissimo” and “E-Motive” showcase a new set of sounds in Tankian’s arsenal. The tracks invite listeners into a more contemplative space, rather than a space where they need to guard against intensity and absurdity in equal measure. That said, even with those tracks, a majority of the first half of the record, Illuminate, is peppered with tracks that are simply fine. There is nothing particularly wrong with “Sad Romance” or “Free Thoughts,” but there’s also nothing memorable. And say what you will about Tankian, but his music is always memorable if nothing else.
The second half of the record, Violent Violins, fares much better than its predecessor, though both sections share flaws in areas. Perhaps it is the comfort level that Tankian already has with stringed instruments that make his violin compositions more compelling, but whatever the case may be, tracks like “Prelude to a Diss” and “Love at the Border” contain just enough of Tankian’s signature rough edge to be engaging. Even when the piano is introduced into the mixture of Violent Violins, it feels freer and more exciting than it did on Illuminate. The feeling of increased excitement is most noticeable on “Spitfire Bombs,” which uses a combination of synths and 808s to create a booming soundtrack behind the droning violins. When combined with the track title, “Spitfire Bombs” helps picture the midnight bombing that Tankian is describing and listeners are compelled to feel the fear of those on the ground.
On the whole, Cinematique is a fine record. It has moments of true ecstasy and power, but the rest of the painting is a bit bland. That said, Tankian’s ability to create a compelling piece within the classical mode is surprising, and his willingness to remain grounded throughout the experiment is laudable, even if it does occasionally hold him back. This likely won’t be an album that defines the Serj Tankian story, but it is a footnote worthy of one’s time.