Review Summary: Harakiri is better than Elect The Dead and Imperfect Harmonies thanks to Serj’s ever-improving composing skills and his ability to write catchy, melodic songs.
System of a Down’s self-titled debut put him on the map, Toxicity made him an idol, and Elect The Dead cemented him as a global superstar. Serj Tankian has an undeniably impressive recording career under his belt from singing in System of a Down to taking charge with his own solo career. That is not to say there weren’t some black marks along the way though. Serj is still incredibly inconsistent as a live performer, sounding inspired and interesting one night and then bored and underwhelming the next. He’s also made weaker albums over the course of his career, with Elect The Dead being good-but-not-great and Imperfect Harmonies and System of a Down’s Hypnotize probably being his lowest moments.
The fact that the former of those two albums was his most recent makes it easy to worry whether or not Serj could come back and deliver a good album once again. If his recent reunion tour with System of a Down was something to go by for how inspired he was, that would’ve made us worry a lot more. Serj’s voice was clearly weaker than it was in his prime, and he sounded even more tired and uninterested in what his old band was playing than before. It was also clear that he was trying to go for a more melodic approach to singing than an approach that featured more screaming like in System of a Down’s earlier days.
All things considered, what should have worried us the most about his next album was his statement that it would be more up-tempo and punk-inspired. Considering that his newer voice is more suited to music akin to the downbeat, calmer Elect The Dead, it was hard to see how he could pull it off. So, how exactly does he do it?
Serj plays to his strengths, that’s how. Between Imperfect Harmonies and now, Serj has come close to mastering the art of catchy, addictive songwriting which better suits his voice. And unlike System of a Down’s songs, Serj’s newer voice can handle the less-heavy, more upbeat songs to be found here. With these songs there are better hooks, better instrumentation, and more inspired vocals, especially in songs like Ching Chime, Butterfly, and Occupied Tears.
The real highlight of the album though is the music. Unlike on previous albums, the music is not just a vehicle for Serj’s voice, which blatantly took center stage on albums like Elect the Dead. The bass and drums have more interesting parts this time around, shining through especially on tracks like Figure it Out and Cornucopia, and the guitars help increase the emotional range of the music, breaking free of the chugging power-chord rut that Serj would find himself in on previous works. In Harakiri there are more well-thought-out melodies and guitar lines, and all of these improvements help make the songs feel even more like full compositions.
All the while, Serj still manages to put his voice to good use, giving each song some kind of memorable vocal hook, not to mention a strong overall performance on the album. His voice may be more tame and restrained now, but that is just what the music calls for. Occasionally he falters though; his weakest moment would probably be on the lead single Figure it Out, which is one of the album’s heavier songs. He doesn’t necessarily give a bad performance, but his performance is more forced here than on any other song, and his voice has a notable nasal pitch here. This goes to illustrate the fact that Serj doesn’t find power in more demanding, manic vocals like he used to in System of a Down, but rather in more solid, melodic lines which blend better with the music.
Another signature of Serj Tankian would be his lyrics, which are just as interesting, sometimes politically-charged, and a lot of the time just-plain-weird as always. His most obvious protest on the album is in the anti-materialistic Figure it Out, although he crafts more clever, biting lyrics on Uneducated Democracy and Occupied Tears. The weirdness is also there on songs like Cornucopia and Ching Chime, with the latter being one of the best songs on the album with its Middle-Eastern vibe and addictive beat. But then there are songs like Harakiri, whose lyrics strike the listener as more personal than Serj’s usual material, and it pays off really well. The title track is another album highlight and one of Serj’s finest moments.
Ultimately though, what Harakiri is is a musical triumph for Serj. He is clearly at his most inspired on here than on anything he has recorded since ‘Steal This Album!’, and this time he has a better understanding in writing and composing music to back himself up. With his more ambitious solo albums due to come out over the next few months/years, Harakiri being released now is definitely a good sign that Serj looks to entertain, triumph, and remind us all why we keep coming back to listen.