Everyone has gateway bands. For me, System of a Down introduced me to the idea of metal at a very young age. Far before the concept of musical genres fully made sense to me, my sister and I would dance around our living like crazy people every time MuchMusic would play the music video for “Chop Suey.” Although I didn’t mention this fact when my friend Sarah and I bumped into Serj at his headlining show at Vancouver’s Rickshaw Theater on September 19th, Sarah did! In her words, I found my sentiments exactly. As I’m sure many kids born in the 80’s can attest, growing up, Serj Tankian was my crash course in metal!
Before Serj took the stage that night, the lights were down and I looked around to scope out the audience. With the limited light from the Rickshaw’s new giant screens playing an image resembling a night sky, I didn’t see many people. Maybe it was because it was a Wednesday night. Maybe it was because the venue had been changed 2 days prior to the show, from the original location at the Vogue Theatre downtown, or maybe I estimated that more System of a Down fans had converted to fans of Serj’s solo act. In any case, it was a small and intimate show in a relatively sizable space. The facilitators had blocked off the majority of the seating downstairs, so the crowd had come up close to watch the band perform.
They opened with “Beethoven’s C**t” from his first solo album, ’Elect The Dead,’ released just two years after System of a Down put out their last album. Next up, they played “Cornucopia” from their most recent album, ‘Harakiri.’ I hadn’t yet listened to the album, which hit the shelves (but mostly the internet) on July 10th of this year, but I had heard this song while I was staying with a friend in a town outside of Montreal in August and the moment that I heard it live, I remembered why I loved it so much. It’s hard not to, if you are an outspoken person of the opinion that we are destroying our planet. Some of the lyrics that really resonated with me in that song were “We rape the Earth and don’t know why it strikes” / “Hurricanes play musical chairs with homes and chattels.”
Soon after, Serj thanked the audience for making it out and spoke of the last time he performed in Vancouver, as the singer of System of a Down, and how he was glad to be back to visit his Canadian friends. Because of the small number of people in the audience, it truly felt like we were just a bunch of like-minded people hanging out; a level of camaraderie that seemed to form instantly. Just a month prior, I had watched System of a Down at a heavy metal festival in Toronto, and the difference was vast. Aside from hearing different songs performed, and the audience size, I even felt that Serj’s performance seemed more passionate and direct. The massive barricades at the festival seem to hold him back from the kind of connection a performer can make in building with 50-100 people.
Next up was “Figure It Out” from the new album. He sang into one microphone which he handheld in one hand, while he held a toy megaphone in his other hand, pointed towards a microphone on a stand. Depending on the part of the song, he would switch between singing into the handheld mic and the megaphone/mic stand combo each, and then he would sing into both at the same time. It created an interesting balance to the song, especially because parts of it sounded like he was having a back and forth with himself, but because of the speed of the song, I don’t know if that would have been as obvious without the sound separation of the vocals. He went on to play “Feed Us” from ‘Elect The Dead’ and I began to really notice his stage presence. From bugging out his eyes to stress certain lyrics, to the flow that seemed to come out from his arms as he danced along to the music, he made for an entrancing performance. He even picked up instruments for a couple of songs, most notably the guitar.
Before going into the next song, he pointed to the big screens on either side of the stage. The visuals, as I mentioned earlier, seemed to be an abstract, digital starry sky. Serj himself made the same connection, mentioning that the image was tripping him out. He used it as a segway into the song, “Sky Is Over,” again from the first album. Sticking to the same album for a third song, the band played “Baby,” before switching back to the most recent for “Butterfly” and the title track, “Harakiri.” The song “Sounds of War,” which is as of yet not on any of his albums, was up next, followed by “Gate 21,” “Occupied Tears,” “Unthinking Majority,” “Honking Antelope,” “Ching Chime,” and “Lie Lie Lie.” He started the next song by teaching the audience the lyrics, getting one side to sing “Praise The Lord,” to which the other side would respond with “Pass The Ammunition,” which is also the name of the song. As the audience flowed into a pattern back and forth between one side of the room to the other, the band began playing and the song melted in. They finished with “Uneducated Democracy” and with their biggest hit to date, “Empty Walls.” I was sad to see a few more songs on the setlist, but there really weren’t enough people in such a large place to warrant an encore. All in all, though, it was a great set of thought provoking and well executed music.
Everything about Serj Tankian on stage is someone I can look up to. He’s a talented musician, a free thinker, a political activist, as well as a very polite individual. As a performer, I see his heritage, down to the way he dances. As a person who is as westernized as one could be from a Middle Eastern family, I see in Serj someone like me. A big family (the musicians he plays with on stage, as well as his opening act on this tour, were mostly all his cousins), as well as his culture subliminally imbedded into him. His dancing, slight pronunciation variants, and his choice of words seemed to all remind me of his culture. But he makes me believe that, while keeping with some aspects, it’s still okay to question authority, to follow your dreams, and also to play music, no matter what kind it may be and who it may offend!