Let’s take a moment to be completely honest here: we’re probably never getting that sixth System of a Down album.
It’s just not happening. If the recent open dispute between lead guitarist/vocalist Daron Malakian and vocalist/keyboardist Serj Tankian has confirmed anything, it’s that there has been an abundance of issues under the surface throughout the quartet’s lengthy hiatus and following reunion, and not just simply due to a little creative disparity between members. Ranging from financial disputes to heavily imbalanced creative control, the group’s members have (on several occasions) displayed a growing tension and frustration with one another, with the latest dispute acting as a clear final nail in the coffin for many disheartened fans of the eclectic alt-metal group.
With this in mind, it’s a fair assessment to assume it was no coincidence that Serj Tankian’s most “System of a Down-esque” 2012 solo album Harakiri (and the cancelled 2012 release of Scars on Broadway’s sophomore album) occurred so soon after the long-anticipated 2011 System of a Down reunion: both projects were effectively two halves of the same coin, material written in the anticipation of possibly being needed for the band’s first release in over six years. Unfortunately, what transpired clearly didn’t go according to expectations. Be it due to the prior issues that led to the band’s initial hiatus, or differences in creative opinion following the reunion, only touring occurred, and the sixth album never materialised. As for what had already been written, the only difference between the two vocalists was that Tankian simply decided to just release the material he had created – Malakian did not and Scars on Broadway entered a six year period of complete radio silence, the planned sophomore release (and accompanying EP) all but forgotten about in the years to come. That is, until now.
Having openly admitted that the album had been completed for years, yet held back in the possibility of material being added to a new System of a Down release, Malakian eventually resurrected/rebranded the project as Daron Malakian and Scars on Broadway in April 2018, and after six years “in the making” Dictator finally came to light. The only question now is rather simple: was it worth the wait?
Well, in opening the album with the bouncy, crunchy guitar tones of the politically infused ‘Lives’, the first impression of Dictator is that by all accounts it seems to be comfortably following the template set by the project’s debut Scars on Broadway. While perhaps a little overlong, it’s a straight-up fun, head-bobbing rock track, with Malakian’s chanting mantra of “everybody dance, when you dance, when you wanna dance – when you wanna dance, you will get in a trance” acting as a celebratory juxtaposition to the track’s far more serious dedication to the victims (and survivors) of the Armenian Genocide. Unfortunately, this is then completely uprooted by the following ‘Angry Guru’. Following in the footsteps of the ridiculously obscene lyricism of ‘Chemicals’, and perhaps taking certain inspiration from the more “quirky” System of a Down offerings of ‘Chic ‘N’ Stu’ or ‘Cigaro’, ‘Angry Guru’ seizes whatever seriousness ‘Lives’ had attempted to establish and promptly proceeds to violently beat it within an inch of its life. Indeed, between recycling half of the guitarwork of ‘Nüguns’ to some of the most grating lyrical choices of Malakian’s entire career (“poo poo” is actually used here, and more than once) ‘Angry Guru’ effectively proves itself both absurdly satirical, yet woefully awful.
Thankfully, while certainly a misstep, ‘Angry Guru’ does not necessarily act as the crippling Achilles heel of Dictator. Although blatantly reusing the bridge guitar riff of ‘Serious’, at its heart the titular ‘Dictator’ stands as a fun and infectious ride of political aggression, while ‘Fuck and Kill’s cocky guitarwork and roar of “oh, I think I love you, I think I love you like I never loved before” proves ridiculously catchy. Elsewhere, ‘Never Forget’s peculiar (and admittedly somewhat irritating) 50s sci-fi synthesizer lead has a certain unusual appeal whenever seen throughout the track, while the fast-paced thrash metal guitar tones of ‘We Won’t Obey’ and ‘Sickening Wars’ cannot help but feel fondly reminiscent of earlier System of a Down material.
Where the album truly hits its stride, however, is in the few moments where Malakian allows a moment or two to breathe: the slow, ominous build-up of ‘Guns Are Loaded’s twangy guitarwork, alongside a rather sombre vocal delivery of “all the guns are loaded close by you”, feel both genuine and effective. When the track does finally breach the surface nearly two minutes in, with a huge guitar riff and thunderous percussion, it all suddenly carries far more weight behind it and acts as an extremely satisfying second half to the track. Close by, ‘Talkin’ Shit’ surprises in being much more meditative than the title may have you believe, lyrically seeing Malakian pondering the likes of “maybe you’re lazy, sitting hazy in the sun – anticipating, maybe waiting just for fun.” While a good portion of the track dedicates itself to exploring a patient, mid-tempo hard rock soundscape, it soon fully lets loose into a catchy, flanged-out guitar lead and accompanying solo, a hint of ‘Psycho’ in the air and standing as one of Dictator’s finest moments.
Unfortunately, in viewing some of the album’s greatest strengths, some of the more evident weaknesses begin to take form: while plenty of Dictator can easily be described as enjoyable, the album certainly feels a little rushed at times (something of a shock, considering how long it has technically had to be worked on), and the repeated recycling of riffs and chord progressions of former System of a Down/Scars on Broadway material is… disappointing. Especially considering Malakian’s infamous 2005 declaration of “I could release 10 solo records tomorrow.” Now sure, this may have been a simple moment of bravado, but when boasting such an abundance of material, Dictator’s tendency to feel just a little too familiar at times certainly doesn’t help but question exactly how much of that material is actually new material.
And yet, regardless of this nit-pick, Dictator is still fun. It’s hard not to relish in the delightfully aggressive build-up of ‘Fuck and Kill’s introductory guitar riff, before feeling the surging impulse to launch yourself into the air the moment the chorus kicks in, and the likes of ‘We Won’t Obey’ and ‘Dictator’ are likely to prove themselves extremely welcome live performances. Like the original Scars on Broadway album, Dictator is something of a mixed bag at times, but enjoyable enough to warrant more than a few listens. Was it worth the wait of what has essentially been a decade? Maybe, maybe not, but simply (finally) having full studio versions of ‘Guns Are Loaded’ and ‘Talkin Shit’ renders this question somewhat irrelevant. Ultimately, Dictator does a damn good job of being an infectiously aggressive ride for much of its duration, and while it may not be the most fleshed out material of Daron Malakian’s career, it’s certainly a welcome addition to it.