I owe Daron Malakian an apology. I was going to make every effort to try and disaggregate Scars on Broadway from System Of A Down, but Malakian is such a huge, distinctive personality and performer with a powerful influence and a unique (and that’s not a word that is used lightly on these hallowed pages) way of presenting his musical ideas that it’s impossible to do so. Added to this, we now know from statements emanating from both Malakian and Serj Tankian that some of the tracks on the second Scars… album, Dictator (independent release) had been mooted for a potential SOAD reunion album, but with that possibility, seemingly increasingly distant, Malakian, who recorded all the instruments as well as the songwriting and performing the vocals, has taken the step of releasing the album after sitting on the tracks for six years.
And a damn fine decision to release them it is, too. This should not come as a surprise, though. The debut Scars album (Interscope) was excellent, but despite what the most avid proponent of competency-based interviewing would tell you, past performance, particularly in music, is not always a predictor of future success.
Opener ‘Lives’, dedicated to an Armenian homeland and heritage that has underpinned Malakian’s “otherness” as a musician, carries a mammoth, bouncing hook and an insistent chorus and any doubts as to the quality of Dictator dissipate instantly. ‘Angry Guru’ kicks in next, probably the most SOAD of the tracks on offer – especially with its odd vocal/lyric combo over an off-kilter rhythm – a song that shuffles and builds into another memorable chorus and it’s already clear that Malakian can very easily produce the goods outside of the System.
Malakian’s idiosyncratic voice and style is dripping from every pore of this album, and while it does, to a great extent, sound, songwriting wise, like SOAD-but-without-the-other-guy, there is enough of a deviation for this to be its own “thing”. It doesn’t sound like anyone else, and no one else sounds like Malakian when he’s on form. Even when he’s not, to be honest… It’s an album that may not be as objectively “heavy” as SOAD, and that would probably have benefited from one of the best rhythm sections of the last twenty years driving it, but this is a He-man strong collection of hooks, grooves, quirks and, well, really good songs.
Across Dictator’s twelve songs, the full gamut of Daron Malakian’s creative arsenal, at least in a metal context, is explored and offered out, and not once does it fail. His instantly recognisable voice carries presence, weight and exhibits a very clever and talented use of timing, phrasing and the ability to deliver a powerful hook or twenty, such as the deathrock, punk, folk combination that explodes in the form of the essentially catchy ‘Never Forget’. Indeed, hints of New Model Army and Killing Joke rear their heads at regular intervals to great effect, in particular during closing joust ‘Assimilate’. The mix of quirky melodies (‘Fuck and Kill’ and its parping earworm), aggressive riffing (the title track), slogans (the punked up ‘We Won’t Obey’), thought-provocation (the powerful line of “All the broken glass reminds me of home” and the dark and evocative ‘Guns Are Loaded’ as a whole) and the clever use of subtle songcraft, and push and pull dynamics is undeniable throughout.
With a new System album seemingly off the table, one can only hope that Malakian picks up the mantle and carries on regardless. This is a really good album that only improves with increased time and familiarity. Scars On Broadway as a concept doesn’t just have legs, it’s a gigantic centipede of war… particularly if he can coax his erstwhile rhythm section to join him.