Sound — 5
Serj Tankian is enjoying a new lease of life as a musician this year. It seems the swathes of money coming in from the System Of A Down tour have liberated the Armenian-American maverick artistically, freeing him to work on a range of non-rock projects which test his creative palette. "Jazz-Iz-Christ" is one of three albums to be released this year - the first was "Orca," a full orchestral symphony with a cinematic twist, while the forthcoming "Fuktronic" will be an electronic collaboration with Mindless Self Indulgence frontman Jimmy Urine. This one is an attempt to combine jazz, fusion, electronic and ethnic music, using a wide range of guest musicians. Together they stitch together an unusual patchwork which is best explained by starting with specifics. "Fish Don't Scream" is a System song at heart, sterilized and reworked for a jazz band but welded together by their chromatic riffing and box office melodies. Too familiar for you? Try the sitar and atonal piano of "Honeycharmed" on for size. Perhaps sample "Arpeggio Bust," which sounds like a prog rock band trying to jam with a jazz trio through six feet of plate glass, or "Waitomo Caves," which samples the Facebook notification noise on a bed of beatboxing and honky-tonk. Despite the idiosyncratic blend of styles, placid dabs of flute and piano leave the less eccentric pieces feeling rather loungey. See "Distant Things": a gentle vignette for which Tankian drafted in all-time drumming great Stewart Copeland only to have him keep time with a mild-mannered brush on the ride. Though the performance is full of dynamic ups and downs, the production does little to bring out the variation, only breaking through the low-level hum when heady electronics come into play on "Balcony Chats" and "Waitomo Caves."
Lyrics — 7
The man behind the curtain only sings on a handful of tracks and leaves the rest to the ensemble, but the moments aided by Tankian's unique voice are the most interesting on the album. The frequent lack of leading instrument explains much of the lounge feel, leaving some instrumental tracks featureless and in desperate need of direction. Vocals do help to address this problem when they appear. Without vocals "Song of Sand" would have been the feeblest track of all, while the tender "Garuna," sung in Armenian, is soothing just for the sound of human syllables. The whole album could have benefitted from more lyricism.
Overall Impression — 5
Serj Tankian ought to look at his growing body of solo work and be pleased. He's doing things most rock musicians never go near, and for all its weaknesses "Jazz-Iz-Christ" is still a coherent assembly of strange and refreshing sounds. That said, he'll be getting more from it than anyone else. While "Orca" surprised with its honesty and simplicity, this project is an exercise in self-indulgence, that onlookers will only enjoy on a profound level if they're willing to try really really hard. "Jazz-Iz-Christ" is stylistically brave but sonically shy, and like most works of its nature, it's destined to be ineffectual for the mass unenlightened.