Serj Tankian, Fantomas @ The Tivoli, Brisbane (21/01/2009)

See the fantastic photos we snapped at this gig here

Entering the Tivoli into a sea of dedicated fans and eavesdropping on their opinionated conversation, it became clear to me that tonight was feeling more like a “Battle of the Bands” contest rather than a normal support act/main act deal. With Fantomas in the support position, even before the music had started, Fantomas fans were complaining about the positioning of the acts- “I don’t know why they’ve got the support slot. They should really have their own show.” This was a common theme in the chatter of the night.

Serj Tankian fans weren’t too interested in Fantomas either. There were very few punters who were actually interested in seeing both bands equally. It was more curiosity that brought Tankian fans out early to see the Fantomas boys, and curiosity, and a pricey ticket, which caused Fantomas fans to linger and see the Serj set. But it was only the start of the night, and people change.

First up, as promised, Fantomas delivered the whole kit and caboodle, the full length, original version with no editing, director’s cut of their album The Director’s Cut. The boys come on stage donned in white cricketers get-up. I don’t know why. Front man, Mike Patton, complete with white glove mitts comes on stage and promptly leaps into a perfectly executed theme to The Godfather.

Patton moves with the music, acting as conductor to the band, changing the tempo, melody and even style of the song with just a twinkle of the eye or an expert swish of his arms. With drummer Dave Lombardo (of Slayer fame) missing from the band tonight, you can tell that Patton is more than ever keeping it together. And he does it well. He reveals his excitement when a pace change goes to plan, and skillfully hides a mishap by ad-libbing.

Besides this, Fantomas deliver an almost flawless set. The Serj Tankian fans are in awe, and everyone wants more. A crowd favourite is the haunting song, Rosemary’s Baby, adapted from the film’s theme song. Patton’s voice is truly amazing. In this song, he makes the simple words –  “la la la la’ sound deadly and then innocent and then creepy and then vacant. His screamo voice is also nothing to contend with. Using his whole body, he thrusts the words forward into his highly movable microphone, like he’s possessed and needs to get it out. It is a great sight to see such a musician in action.

The boys finish with the second song on the album, Der Golem, a tune from the 1920s German silent horror film. The crowd is astounded, and the die-hard fans are relieved that this song wasn’t glazed over. One guy, who obviously knows the album from back to front, says to his friend, “I was worried for a moment. I thought they’d forgotten this one, but no, they just pulled it out right at the end’. What a relief.

Serj Tankian, lead singer of System of a Down, is next. A lot of punters here haven’t heard his solo efforts, eventuating in the 2007 album Elect the Dead. Tankian walks out in a white suit and white top hat. His band he introduces as The Flying C**ts of Chaos are in a uniform of matching black top hats. He walks to the piano and plays the song of the album’s namesake. It is a solemn tune which throws the audience, as it is more melancholy rock than the expected alternative metal. Nevertheless, it strikes a chord with the crowd, with Tankian’s unique voice bringing unexplainable feeling, without lameness, to the song.

After the piano solo, the rest of the band pick up their instruments and finish the song together. The next few tunes are hard and fast with strong messages. Tankian regularly waves his top hat, bows down to the floor and lightly air guitars during the set. It is not strenuous exercise. His stage presence seems more like an eccentric rabbi, or the Mad Hatter in Alice and Wonderland- occasionally contentedly smiling to himself, or doing a jig. Most of the songs from his album are played- the crowd favourites being Lie Lie Lie (which generates a loud singalong), Sky is Over and Baby.

Tankian’s banter with the crowd and introductions to half his songs are very political. He shares his opinions about religion, institutions and American presidents freely. This is in stark contrast to the other half of the tunes performed, which are highly playful in nature. For example, to the fast-paced Money, he adds ABBA’s Money Money Money lyrics making a wacky mash-up. He also does a cover of The Beatles’ Girl, which has him laughing to himself, until he picks up the pace, turning the easy-listening song into his own hardcore version.

He finishes the set with Beethoven’s C**t, only to follow it up with an encore starting with a David Bowie Space Oddity cover. The very last song of the night begins with a speech by Tankian. He says, –  “I will not make my decision until I see action from President Obama.’ After which, he launches into Unthinking Majority. It is a good song to finish on. But, although System of a Down fans are satisfied, I cannot help but stare at the look of confusion on some audience member’s faces. More than one person remarks, –  “Well, that’s not what I expected’. I guess you can’t please everyone.

Tankian is an interesting solo artist with a different sound that manages to bewilder some people. But despite this, I can’t help feeling the main act was upstaged by the support. With my expert snooping skills I found one punter that could sum up the night quite succinctly: –  “Lesson: if you want to look good, don’t put Patton on the bill before you’.