Sound — 8
Tick this off the list of things you thought you'd never see. If you've been following the career of Serj Tankian since the initial demise of his band System of a Down, you're probably familiar with the greatly underappreciated "Elect the Dead Symphony," a colourful orchestration of his debut solo album and proof of his diverse musical endeavours, which reach well beyond that of your average rock frontman. His pedigree is proven in rock and in classically-influenced experimental metal. This, however, is something else entirely; this is pinch-yourself-to-see-if-you're-dreaming stuff. The man behind "Chop Suey," "Toxicity" and "banana terracotta terracotta pie" has composed an entire classical symphony in four acts. Let's get to it, shall we? The first act, "Victorious Orcinus," is unpresumptuous and relatively low-key to begin with. Serj tinkers around with a few of his new instruments and lays down some markers for the mood of the symphony. It takes a few minutes to find its feet, but once the brass is booming and the chord movements start to follow the piano's confident lead, you start to get an idea of the intended style. This is a cinematic piece, trading the technical rigour and tonal complexity of a pre-1800 symphony for something more emotive. The melodies are big and clearly signposted, and although Tankian utilises every part of the Das Karussell Orchestra, his arrangements are not magnificently intricate. He takes us down a darker route in Act Two, plucking at the heartstrings with expressive minor chords, and strings which move sombrely downwards towards the lower reaches of the instruments. The influence of 20th century composers is evident in the brass, which is a) prominent and b) versatile, as it merges filmic soundscape with the more robust approach found in contemporary performance music. Act Three is inspired by Ludovico Eindaudi and Mike Oldfield, using the former's simple and emotive piano style to rouse the orchestra before fiddling with looping motifs and time signatures in the vein of Oldfield's "Tubular Bells." Much like Einaudi, the melody in the first half is thoughtful and effortlessly listenable without leaving you fully satisfied, but the unconventional second more than compensates. The fourth and final act is by far the most dramatic, using playful flourishes of percussion and oboe to punctuate an ever-changing roulette of moods. The orchestra copes wonderfully well with some rather off-the-wall clashes of atmosphere. As the melody grows more romantic however, Tankian seems set to end on a mournful, slow-burning march, which is melancholy and quite beautiful. But seconds from the end he erupts once again with horns and thundering timpani, radically changing the taste that the piece leaves in your mouth. It is the sort of eccentricity we haven't been used to in the previous three acts, but we should expect no less, I suppose, from a member of System of a Down.
Lyrics — 7
The strange thing about this symphony, with all its narrative qualities, is that it doesn't have anything to narrate. The ORCA Symphony is a standalone work, designed to be sat and listened to as a piece and not a soundtrack, but the way that it's written absolutely screams cinema. Act One's overture is crying out for a protagonist to champion, Act Two's lyricism a tale to tell; a plot and a cast of characters is perhaps what it is missing. Without them, for all its merits, it feels like John Williams without Indiana Jones, Koji Kondo without Link or Nobuo Uematsu without a battle between Cloud and Sephiroth.
Overall Impression — 8
Nonetheless, this is an interesting and professionally executed work, and far more than just a vanity project for a wealthy and indulgent rockstar. Its style is simple and unpretentious, not groundbreaking by any stretch but certainly the best piece of classical music anyone can remember a rockstar ever writing. The name Serj Tankian may forever be associated with nu-metal but the man has the ability to work in many different fields of music, and anyone who thinks otherwise ought to give this a really good listen.