Scars on Broadway - Scars on Broadway
Tim Miller 29/08/2008
Three years on from what looks to have been System of a Down's last output, the platinum-selling double album Mesmerize/Hypnotise, half that band rejoin forces for a new era of Armenian-American assault. In truth, singer/songwriter/guitarist Daron Malakian has been working on solo material ever since, and it wouldn't surprise anyone, I don't think, if several of these tunes - there's some 15 of them - were already knocking around as the finishing touches were being applied to System's illustrious time at the top.
Back in 2005, I wrote, somewhat gushingly looking back, how System of a Down had evolved, continuing to reinvent themselves brilliantly with each release. Their five album progression, from aggressively bonkers jazz-metal to a mature melodically-tinged metal (but still bonkers), saw their final efforts dishing out catchy choruses, two-part harmonies, a toned-down approach which hinted at Malakian's involvement coming further and further to the fore.
What this means though, to accustomed ears, is that Scars on Broadway sounds very much like the place Malakian's former band had reached when they met their fork in the road. Evolvement and 'new direction', that oft-quoted necessity for new releases, are not high on the agenda. The self-titled debut squeals to life with the quick-fire, sub-three minute duo 'Serious' and 'Funny': one a heady rush of rapid guitar plugging and loud/quiet juxtapositions, the other an instantly recognisable Malakian melody adorning a stomping rhythm. But problems hit early on into this 'debut'. Third track 'Exploding/Reloading' is built around a Mellotron riff that sounds stolen from an arcade racing game, and while of similarly high-octane speed, its tackiness detracts from the song having any sort of punch.
'Insane' is a low-key affair, the guitars trudging dejectedly between wistful vocals and weeping solos, sounding something like Greenday on a downer. More worryingly, the song also sounds closely related to 'Kill Each Other/Live Forever', a moot track screaming “filler” at you incessantly. Following song 'Babylon' is positively grand by comparison, building from mournful beginnings into an urgent cry to reverse the implosion of a society destroying itself, rounded off in a crashing chorus.
Indeed, it's the choruses that sell this album best: Malakian certainly has an ear for a hook, and acidic vocal melodies burning with his emotionally-driven deliver. But, lyrics-wise, Malakian's well-trodden themes offer a largely disappointing content, the following being just a selection. From the meaningless “Super-cala-fra-jalistic-expi-ela-docious is a word to me-a, mamma mia”, seriously the first line to the seriously awful 'Stoner Hate', to flippantly touching on pornography in the wacky 'Chemicals' Let's get ready to rock, I piss on your face while you suck on my cock”; faux concern for saving the planet gets a working over in 'World Long Gone': “Maybe I don't know how many people are starving, in this world” and of course political elements - the Armenian genocide, capitalism, patriotic flag-waving - are touched upon throughout.
While the themes are predictable and on most occasions underdeveloped and detached, what grates most is Malakian's voice. From occasional harmony duties in System of a Down's early days, to virtual lead singer on their final album, Malakian clearly got tired of playing second-fiddle to focal point frontman Serj Tankian. But his voice simply isn't up to scratch to do lead vocals, attempting and failing on 'Chemicals', for example, to match the haphazard quality of Tankian's unique style. Malakian's tuning is genuinely forced, his reach isn't extensive, his delivery doesn't offer any variety. Most irritating, though, is how nasal his actual singing voice is. It's a poor decision, then, but furthers whatever theories there may be to suggest that, with System of a Down now seemingly archived for good, Malakian wants to do things his way, and his way only.
When the album closes with first single 'They Say' - a metal-by-numbers effort that's an altogether different (as in poorer) league to 'Chop Suey' or 'BYOB' - it's been something of an effort just to get through the 15 songs. The Scars on Broadway self-titled first album is founded on a theory which brought its members success with their previous incarnation. But the substance to support that theory is lacking. Two quarters of a band don't always make a new whole, and particularly obvious is the missing counterpart to Malakian's songwriting: Morrissey to his Marr, McCartney to his Lennon. It's almost as if this debut tries too hard to recreate a first impression; the trouble is we already know what these guys are all about.