Review Summary: Eclectic World Music With a Twist
I'd like to begin by saying what a pleasure it is to be the first to review this album. It's truly a unique piece of work.
The name of the musical release (and the group) is "Serart", taken from the first three letters of the names of the two main contributors to the musical project: Serk Tankian, frontman of thrash metal group System of a Down, and Arto Tunc Boyaciyan, self-described "Avant-Garde Folk Artist". This album is like no other collaboration I've ever heard - it manages to remain a cohesive project while injecting the personalities of Serj and Arto so completely, yet so distinctly, into the work as a whole.
Blah, blah, blah. To the point: what does this mean to you, the potential consumer? I will begin this review with a warning: the impatient need not apply. This record is for lovers of the eclectic and new musical experiences, and those who have trouble dealing with new things and experiences may not react to this CD the way I did.
So, having said that, let's begin:
Serart is, as I said above, truly unique. Upon my initial listen, I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. To describe it as "folk rock" is true, certainly, but marginalizes its freshness. Serart does so many things, and does them so well, that it remains enjoyable on more than one level. The album fuses together elements of jazz, African-sounding tribal beats and rhythms (complete with chanting!), and straight-up rock together into a strange, strange mix.
Opener number (after the thirty-second introduction) "Cinema", perhaps my favorite track on the CD, is a good example. Beginning with Arto's master strokes of percussionism and Serj's airy vocals, it soon develops into a jazz-like riff, with sweet and savage chanting, unintelligible yet emotional voicework and booming drums. After a beat, the song melds unexpectedly - and perfectly - into an Oriental melody. This calm interjection is broken by an almost System-like guitar riff - holding its beat for a good minute with Serj's vocals ( "Do you want me to believe in faith? Do you want me to believe in you?. . ." ) , special among the few other English lyrics on the CD. Suddenly, a quiet bridge is broken by his (and the vocalists') unintelligible chanting. Near the track's end, the music breaks back into its beginning jazz riff without missing a beat, grounding the track with itself, before the explosive finale.
That brief description is only one of the many memorable moments on this album. While few of the other tracks on Serart manage to juggle as many styles as flawlessly as "Cinema" does, the album holds enough of these great moments to ground interest in the work. Thankfully, the rest of the tracks stand much greater in the context of the album than they would separately; even tracks that should be annoying, like "Black Melon" (an extremely slow, ambient piece of work that doesn't really pick up until the end), or "Claustrophobia" (wherein Serj reads some of his slightly pretentious poetry over a background of flutes) manage to hold my interest when viewed as part of a larger work (the CD mercifully keeps the potentially boring tracks short). One more word of wisdom: this album grows on you with repeated listens. It may seem confusing at first, but let yourself get into it, and you'll never go back.
USELESS FAN TRIVIA: Serj Tankian invited other member of System of a Down to contribute to the collaboration in any way they wanted. Shavo Odadjian, SOAD's bass player, took him up on the offer, providing many DJ and sounds effects to the album. Most of the sound clips and out-of-place sounds effects you'll hear on the album were added by Shavo.
Although I feel that - as I mentioned above - Serart stands out much greater as a whole than as a collection of individual tracks, a track-by-track summary follows. As you can see, the track lengths vary wildly; six tracks are under two minutes, while most of the other tracks hit four minutes or longer. (NOTE: in referencing track lengths, I am referring to the numbers printed on the back of the CD case, not the "real" track lengths Windows Media Player is giving me. I'd also like to point out that most of the track titles make no sense in the context of the CD, making referencing specific tracks nearly impossible without looking at the album liners.)
Intro (0:33) :
The melody from the introduction is used several times throughout the CD. Similar to (this is a bad comparison, I know) Green Day's recent "American Idiot" record, elements such as the basic intro melody are used throughout the record, giving it a great cohesive feel as recognizable themes are reused. This track is fairly worthless on its own (don't go downloading it off of iTunes), but creates a great effect for the album. - Song Written by Serj Tankian
Cinema (4:00) :
As described above, a roller-coaster of radically different, yet somehow compatible styles of music assembled to a unifying theme. I love this track like a brother. - Song Written by Serj
Devil's Wedding (4:08) :
A good example of a great Arto track, "Devil's Wedding" combines lively tribal-style vocals with a heavily drum-shaped beat. The track manages to avoid repetition with a great guitar-riffing bridge about halfway through. - Song Written by Arto Tuncboyaciyan
The Walking Xperiment (3:32) :
Probably the second-best progression on the CD ( after "Cinema" ), "The Walking Xperiment" carries the same basic musical theme - an outburst, then silence - on the record to great lengths. A very satisfying song. - Song Written by Serj
Black Melon (3:36) :
I'm not sure what to make of this slow-paced, ethereal track. The melody in "Black Melon" is elusive, the music follows no conceivable pattern until the end - didn't you pay attention to my warning at the beginning of this review? - Song Written by Arto
Metal Shock (0:31) :
Another "bridge" track, "Metal Shock" is a very brief track driven by a single sound clip. Manages to conjure an image of a battle onscreen, at least in my mind. - Song Written by Arto
Save the Blonde (3:15) :
Ah, this is more like it. Another folk rock tune with chanting, twisted vocals and about a hundred instruments and voices interweaving simultaneously. Downright-silly vocals at the end make me wonder how authentically-Armenian this album is. Hold your breath. - Song Written by Serj
Love is the Peace (2:29) :
A great example of music bridging cultural gaps, the emotion of this song is certainly not lost in the translation. The track's somber opening, replete with sounds of artillery, set the stage for Arto's eerie vocals, which manage to express more than words ever could in English. - Song Written by Arto
Leave Melody Counting Fear (3:45) :
Somewhat similar to "Save the Blonde", with more influence on guitar work and vocals. Enjoyable, with a great echoing vocal bit early on. - Song Written by Serj
Gee-Tar (1:11) :
As the title suggests, basically a guitar solo. Uses one of the two main melodies on the album (the other being the one in the intro). I half expected this track to explode into a metal riff, like the great System of a Down song "Mr. Jack", which reminds me of this track for some reason. - Song Written by Serj
Claustrophobia (1:36) :
Man, I hated this track the first time through. Serj Tankian's poetry is usually very good (especially when set to music), but the poem Serj reads over the quiet background instrumentation in "Claustrophobia" is kind of silly. It sounds kind of stupid when read aloud, even if it looks great on paper ( Sample lyrics: "Losing sight of the eternal garden can be devastating at best. What drives me insane are the catastrophic perplexities of those closed souls with whom I have drank from the pure fountain of harmony. . ." ). This track has grown on me, though, after repeated listens. Anyway, it's short - grin and bear it. - Song Written by Serj
Narina (5:32) :
A great track, with a suitably epic feel. It opens (after an overly-long intro of what sounds like dice-rolling) with an almost rap-like beat, before breaking into a beautiful harmonization between Arto Tuncboyaciyan and female vocalist Jenna Ross. Serj rounds out the song's fullness with a cathartic wail ( "And we all are all alive. . ." ). Fantastic song. Even at five and a half minutes, it doesn't seem long. - Song Written by Arto
Zumba (0:51) :
A speedy drumfest. Another bridge track, "Zumba" is a very cool track for ambience (and it sounds like a good track to run around your house like a maniac to). - Song Written by Arto
Facing the Plastic (3:46) :
My second-favorite Serj track ( after "Cinema" ), because of the infectious vocals. I can't even understand them (I suspect they're meaningless), but they're very, very cool. Features an awesome sitar-like instrument of some sort in the middle. - Song Written by Serj
If You Can Catch Me (1:03) :
The impression I get out of this track is a group sing-a-long. I think it's completely a capella, making it a rarety among my CD collection. It sounds like there's a hundred people singing at once. - Song Written by Arto
I Don't Want to Go Back Empty Handed (4:07) :
The final track is a great-sounding track, and probably the most traditionally Armenian piece on the CD. Wonderfully melodic and harmonious, this track features some of the best vocals on the album. - Song Written by Arto
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NOTE: It seems I lied. The melodies in "Intro" and "Gee-Tar" are NOT repeated throughout the CD, as I said. I don't know what I was thinking. Please don't kill me.