The sound of tyranny

System of a Down's Serj Tankian soundtracks the A.R.T.'s production of Prometheus Bound
By DANIEL BROCKMAN  |  February 18, 2011

There are musicians, and then there are polymath musicians. How to tell the difference? Well, let's say someone asks you if you want to score a musical. And you don't listen to musicals. If your answer is, "Sure, there's something I've never done before!" - well, perhaps you're like Serj Tankian, the vocalist for weirdo-metal titans System of a Down, who still hasn't found a musical challenge too out-there for him yet. After a chance meeting with playwright Steven Sater, he agreed to compose the music for Prometheus Bound, a daring take on the fifth-century-BC Aeschylus tale of the titular tortured Titan. "I was never a giant fan of musicals," explains Tankian, speaking from his LA studio last week, a few days before he has to jet back to Cambridge to oversee workshops and rehearsals for Prometheus Bound, which debuts at Harvard Square's American Repertory Theater on February 25. "I mean, I just never spend much time in that bubblegum world that musicals seem to generally reside in. To do this, I guess I just kind of experimented with whatever the hell it is that I do best!"

What Tankian does best is hard to pin down, perhaps because he does so many things. For more than a decade, what he did was front System of a Down, a band that will probably go down in history as one of the oddest to ever go platinum and win Grammys. Technically, the band fit in the metal genre, due to the screaming vocals, blazing riffwork, and thunderously busy drum hammering, but its restlessness with genre conventions is evident within the confines of literally every track they ever recorded. For every balls-out rock moment, there are those of ponderous somberness, gonzo oddness, gentle acoustic arpeggiations, and mournful and searching melodicism, all duking it out within the Thunderdome of any given song. Which in many ways makes the band's unanimous and non-acrimonious choice to go on an undefined hiatus all the more puzzling: after all, it's not as if they could have creatively stifled by this band, right? Tankian agrees. "Of course! I mean, look: stylistically, I never felt hampered by System of a Down. Listen to our music, it's all over the fucking place! No, rather, it was just that the band left little time to pursue other projects and careers without having to stuff them in between here and there. So taking a hiatus definitely opened the door for me to do everything that I've always wanted to do."


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