Discussing his upcoming solo album, former System of a Down vocalist Serj Tankian drops an unexpected word: "Edit." Mild-mannered and soft-spoken, Tankian speaks about his music with a professorial ease. It's a long way removed from his on-stage and in-the-studio persona, where hard rock is simply the basis for an excuse to take a multitude of left turns, explore orchestral fits and jolt the listener with sometimes frantic changes of pace.
"Before I would always build, build, build, build, and then be done," Tankian said Wednesday afternoon from his Sherman Oaks studio. "Now, I build in parts. I built the orchestra. I built the electronics. I built the live instrumentation. Then I went back and took things out. It was the first time I threw everything against the wall and then started taking things out."
But if such pruning was the case, it wasn't readily evident in the three songs Tankian previewed from his upcoming solo effort, "Imperfect Harmonies," tentatively tabled for a September release. After announcing that he was halfway through the mixing process for the 11-track album, Tankian unveiled the first finished cut, "Corporatacy."
The title will change, Tankian said, but the near-industrial electronic stomp that opens the song is likely cemented in place. More theatrical than purely aggressive, the song, like much of System of a Down's signature work, soon spins seemingly out of control. Nine Inch Nails-like keyboards drop out, and the verses twist into a jazz-like free-for-all, at least until the guitars arrive in the chorus to remind the listener that Tankian was, indeed, the leader of one of recent history's most successful metal bands.
"I felt so alone until you came in my life stopped the pain," Tankian sings in an unexpectedly quiet bridge. But the earnestness doesn't last, as the lyrics go from love to anger to heartache in moments, capturing the full range of a dead-end relationship in a span of 20 seconds. Or maybe not. "God speaks different in every language," Tankian repeats as the song comes to a close.
Tankian displays a more vulnerable side in another one of the new tracks, "Beat Us," in which guitars meld with electronics until it becomes impossible to tell which instrument is which. An ornate arrangement carries the song, as if a guitar is being used to mimic a harp, and the song builds to a rather playful, give-and-take chorus with local singer Shana Halligan.
"I always mix the personal, the political, the humorous and the philosophical," Tankian said. "Those are the four different quadrants of what I do lyrically, and it’s no different here. But there is more urgency when it comes to the ‘why are we here and what’s going on?’ There’s also a different intimacy to the personal. ‘Beat Us’ was very personal. It’s a loving, heartbreak song. There’s a lot of heartbreak on this record."