SCARS ON BROADWAY DO BETTER THAN THEIR SH*TTY, SH*TTY BAND NAME MAY SUGGEST
I know the phrase “guilty pleasure” gets thrown around a lot (including by this particular writer), but the latest by System of a Down appendix, Scars on Broadway, falls hard under that category. If your patience for it is limited, the band can sound like, quite possibly, the worst band you’ve ever heard. Like, exceptionally bad. Like Incubus getting their asses kicked by Frank Zappa’s retarded, untalented nephew that works at the Citgo bad. But if you give the record a shot and don’t expect too much from it, much like the aforementioned fictitious nephew, it can provide a surprisingly nuanced listen, full of delicious hard pop riffs and the kind of melody System of a Down hinted at before they’d go over the edge into yodeling territory.
The first point to touch upon is that this is by no means a metal record. Sure, the record has its “heavy” parts, but they’re usually there to provide some hard rock balls to the band’s hooky approach. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s hard to argue that the actual music – everything sans vocals – isn’t full of catchy bits that make up the sort of solid backbone that’s so glaringly missing from today’s mainstream rock. Daron Malakian pulls out all the stops needed: chunky power chords, the occasional Sixties guitar flourishes, the hints of Middle Eastern melody that System so often employed (but is used more effectively here), and a slew of retro-tastic keyboards that actually add to the songs as opposed to being used for kitschy flair. And System drummer John Dolmayan, who plays double duty in Scars on Broadway, sticks to the same sort of rock/disco hybrid that served him so well in his day job. And yet, he gives SoB their own personality, brilliantly playing off of Malakian so that none of his riffs sound boring or stale. It’s hard to think of a straight up rock record in recent memory that has, in theory, sounded this diverse without trying too hard.
The record’s weak points – and they’re weak points like missing your legs would be a weak point – are the vocals and, especially, the lyrics. Daron Malakian plays all instruments but the drums on the record. His vocals, though, leave something to be desired. Of course, that desired thing is good vocals. Malakian sounds like a clone of a clone of System frontman Serj Tankian, almost never keeping from going over the top in any of the record’s performances. And this could be forgiven in the world of hard rock/heavy metal, as we all have those bands that employ vocalists we just ignore. Hell, black metal would be completely unenjoyable if you judged it by its vocals. But the difference between extreme metal vocals and what Scars on Broadway do is that every word is clear and understood, while the cringe-worthy fodder of death and black metal are shrouded in growling or rasping.
And if I were Malakian, I would not want anyone to know what I was saying on Scars on Broadway. Even when taking into account that sometimes being obtuse can lead to profundity, and that popular music more often than not provides nothing remotely literary or poetic, Scars on Broadway spout some of the most embarrassing bullshit ever put to tape. Just terrible, terrible nonsense that swings from the silly (“When you sing ‘la la la la la’/ Stoner hate has got your back/ California’s been invaded by a hippie psychopath”) to the somehow both bluntly and confusingly political (“I like suicide/ mixed with Jesus Christ/ I like Jesus Christ/ Mixed with suicide”), to the vague and faux-philosophical (“If we’re gonna kill each other, how we gonna live forever?/ If we’re gonna live forever, how we gonna kill each other?”) to the coup de grace of fucking unforgivably awful that is “Chemicals” (“When I say, ‘Fuck the world; lets get ready to rock!’ as I piss on your face while you suck on my cock.” Which is both unnecessarily vulgar and, well, physically impossible.). Scars on Broadway’s problem is the mirror image of the one that plagues your Nickelbacks, Hinders, and Linkin Parks – in trying to say something meaningful, they wind up with a mangled attempt at what most people would consider emotions. In the latter band’s case, they try too hard to express themselves using tired expressions and terrible, terrible confessional bullshit seemingly ripped from a pre-teen diary; in Scars on Broadway’s case, they try too hard to express themselves through gibberish that comes across as merely gibberish instead of challenging or enlightening. This problem wouldn’t be maddening if it wasn’t blatantly obvious that Malakian is trying so, so hard to write something good and failing so, so miserably.
But it’s a tribute to the music that many of the songs here rise above their excruciating lyrics and, to a lesser extent, the vocal performances. The chiming guitars of “Enemy” sound brilliant and fresh, and the shifting moods of the excellent “Cute Machines” are almost worth the record’s serious missteps. Even after a few listens, the horrible lyrics, for the most part, give way to a collection of great, tuneful rock songs that rarely fail in putting a smile on your face. But this is if you can get past them. It’s quite an obstacle and, in my opinion, keeps a good record from being great. But to many – and I would by no means not see one‘s point were it to come up – it’s keeping a shit record from being good.
(3 out of 5 horns)