Typical. You wait 13 years for a new System Of A Down album and then, well, none come along at once. Despite the odd vague hint and tantalising promise, that band remain stuck in the same will-they-won’t-they/OK-so-they-won’t holding pattern that has prevented them from knuckling down to make a follow-up to Hypnotize and Mezmerize.
One unexpected side-effect of this passive-aggressive intra-band soap opera is that it turns out Daron Malakian has had a Scars On Broadway album squirrelled away for at least half that time. The songs that make up Dictator – itself the very belated follow-up to SOB’s self-titled 2008 debut – stretch back to 2012. The guitarist has been sitting on them ever since, unwilling to step on System’s toes while simultaneously being just as confused as the rest of us as to what the hell was going on with his own band.
He’s evidently decided enough is enough, and set Dictator free from whatever sound-proofed cellar he’s been keeping it in for the last half-decade. And thank the gods of schizoid Armenian-American metal that he has, because it’s a reminder of just what the world has been missing.
Given that Daron always had the biggest hand in System Of A Down’s songwriting, it’s no surprise that Dictator doesn’t stray too far from the mothership. Lead-off track Lives takes the same drunken-master approach as SOAD, staggering in on the kind of wobbly-legged riff that sounds like it’s about to collapse under its own weight, only to suddenly and unexpectedly take flight. ‘We are the people who were kicked out of history,’ sings Daron with a nod to Armenian culture and the horrific genocide that informs so much of his other band’s work. Angry Guru possesses the same maverick spirit, its relentless thrashings giving way to an unhinged nursery rhyme rhythm.
But this is much more than a high-end System Of A Down knock-off. Daron isn’t stupid enough to try to replicate Serj Tankian’s psycho-prophet gibberings, nor is he so lazy that he’s just recycling that outfit’s greatest hits. The album’s most memorable moments come when he casts aside the template he helped draw up 20 years ago and unfurls his own individual freak flag. Till The End is a burst of fuzzy alt-pop that sounds like Weezer fed through a distortion pedal. Even more startling is Gie Mou, an emotive instrumental cover of a traditional Greek pop song whose title translates as ‘My Son’ – an explicit nod to the Mediterranean part of Malakian’s gloriously multi-cultural heritage. Though the fact he immediately follows up it with the album’s curtain closer, Assimilate – by far the heaviest thing here – indicates he’s not about to give himself over to world music. Or at least no more than he already has.
It’s not hard to read Dictator as a sly ‘fuck you’ to his on-off bandmates, or at least the ones holding up a potential album. It’s evident in their grand rebranding – they’re no longer just Scars On Broadway, but now ‘Daron Malakian And Scars On Broadway’, a definite ‘Who Needs You Guys Anyway?’ statement. But it’s also there in the fact that, yes, many of these songs could quite have easily parked their backsides on a SOAD record. On this evidence, that’s System Of A Down’s loss more than it is ours.