Serart, Serart (Serjical Strike Records)
Many artists, once they reach the "safety zone" of having secured a few million sales and an equally important fan base, decide to engage in self-indulgent activities such as side projects. Remember U2's The Passengers? No? Didn't think so.
System of a Down's lead singer Serj Tankian has teamed up with fellow Armenian Arto Tuncboyaciyan for a collision course of musical genres. The singer spotted the multi-instrumentalist, multi-talented avant-garde folk artist Arto when he performed using a Coke bottle at the 2000 Armenian Music Awards in Los Angeles. Two years later, their project Serart a contraction of their names and the first release through Serj's label Serjical Strike is as unpredictable and surprising and boundless as their use of instruments. Everything has the potential to make music.
Traditional instruments such as Arto's pockets, commonly used to make bird sounds, and "wilder" instruments like the electric guitar are only some of the tools used to make this album. Serj and Arto often depend on themselves to produce sound (though I cannot say if they fall into the traditional category or not).
The product of pure improvisation Serj claims nothing was pre-written Serart is one continuous medley of genres, crossing oceans and continents and decades. Rock, jazz, metal, Armenian, African, Chinese, Japanese music come together forming a kaleidoscope of mini sonic booms. Musical worlds collide, rebuild themselves, then explode into something unexpected and right when you least expect them to.
"Devil's Wedding" is a sort of ritual African dance taking place in China by an indigenous tribe. The vibes are haunting; the spell is cast. The "sadana" (which means devil in Armenian and other languages) is repeatedly heard in the chorus, as if to call on the gods to bless this wedding of sounds. "Cinema" gives off false hints of a George Clinton sample, but it unpredictably falls into a jazz scat, then metal, before traveling to China. And that's just a few of the many genres in that one track. The rest of the album is equally unpredictable taking you on a voyage of rich sounds very often fronted by Arto, who haunts and mesmerizes with his voice from some past epoch. Serj's whispering narration on "Black Melon" is like a climax to the aforementioned wedding party. Images of post-battle desolation and the apocalypse are conjured up amid the war sounds of "Love Is the Peace."
Many of the tracks, such as "Claustrophobia," are written sorry, improvised in LA minor, the key in which many Armenian folk songs are composed, the "sad" key. This album is the soundtrack to a black-and-white film of an intellectual nature. An experimental film.
That's just it Serart is more about experimentation than improvisation. Just listen to the structured melodies. Improvisation may give the idea that, hey, they sat in a studio and played whatever took their fancy, like on "Gee-Tar." And in some instances you may believe that, but the album contains carefully arranged melodies. Beautiful "Narina," featuring vocals by Jenna Ross, is probably the most marketable track.
That said, when artists step outside the finely drawn boundaries of commercial music to produce side projects such as this, while the result may be interesting and colorful, it may also end up gathering dust on your CD rack.
The White Stripes, Elephant (V2 Records)
Just when you thought every aspect of rock and how to do it was done, a new how-to manual called Elephant is thrown at you. "Dedicated to, and is for, and about the death of the sweetheart." And what a pitch.
The fourth opus by the White Stripes isn't the epitome of originality, but it's refreshing and a tad nostalgic. Without sounding cliché, the Stripes revisit the Golden Age of Rock of the '70s. A timeless, primitive rock, fortified by its blues forefathers and punk predecessors and re-enforced by that under-produced quality of sound. And how clever, they used vintage equipment from the Middle Ages of the '60s to get the effect. Elephant is not a commercial repeat of White Blood Cells, their lauded last album, and claim to fame. Ignoring all the great expectations weaved by the media hype surrounding them, the Stripes just did what they had to do in the Guinness-worthy record time of two weeks in London.
And references to England are strewn here and there: "Everyone knows about it / From the Queen of England to the hounds of Hell" ("Seven Nation Army") and "Holly give me some of your English lovin'" (the delightful "Well It's True That We Love One Another" guest-starring Thee Headcoats' Holly Golightly).
Elephant is full of catchy bass lines, like the thudding beats that open "Seven Nation Army," which just may become as classic as that of New Order's perennial "Blue Monday." But it is the coughing guitar solos accompanied by Jack White's theatrical voice effects that make the album unpredictably explosive. From song to song, he can be a pleading Mick Jagger, as in "I Want To Be the Boy To Warm Your Mother's Heart," which is a mix of 1968 blues and rock. Or a wailing modern-day Marc Bolan. Or an experimental bluesy Jon Spencer, exploding here and there, as he howls and jowls over Meg White's simple beats. No fancy boom-booms here.
It's simplistic, with the raw quality dating back to when the rock-n-roll rule book was written some 40 years ago. The seven-minute epic "Ball and Biscuit" is the meeting of Jimi (yeah, him) and Jimmy (the other one, from Led Zeppelin) in what seems to be a massive guitar dialogue between Jack and Jack. "There's No Home For You Here" is infused with Queen-like psychedelia. Shades of the Doors and Woodstock-ian riffs dominate throughout. Surprises abound, such as Meg's vocals a debut on the dark "In the Cold, Cold Night" and a reading of Burt Bacharach's "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself," where chords of a 10,000-watt electric guitar burst forth when you least expect it.
There may be only two of them in the band, but they sound like the "Seven Nation Army" Jack White sings about.
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