System of a Down are an Armenian-American band that rose from the ashes of the band Soil in 1994. Over a 7-year period, they released 5 full length albums and are often discussed as being a nu-metal band, although I prefer to think of them as alternative metal.
In the mid ’90’s, I bought a copy of Kerrang! and included with the, then very good, magazine was a 2-track cassette by a band called System of a Down. Featuring the songs, ‘War’ and ‘Suite Pee’, I played it so much at University that my friend Mark would rip the piss out the former, shouting ‘We will fight the Heathens’ at the top of his voice. Mark used to also take his amp to the front door of our flat, turn it up to 11 and play a single power cord and then put everything back in his room. He was, and is, a cool dude, but I digress. Because of this cassette, I like to think of myself as an early adopter of SoaD and I quickly became a big fan, eager to lap up their new, original take on metal.
Jumping to the head of the queue due to a brief conversation with Gareth Endean (author of ‘Half a Ton of Heavy Metal’ – a great book, buy it on Amazon), Retrospective #6 is the excellent System of a Down.
Album Retrospective – System of a Down.
In 1998, soon after hearing the promo cassette of ‘War’ and ‘Suite Pee’, I eagerly snapped up the eponymous debut album by SoaD and was immediately blown away by the originality and sheer heaviness of the music. Serj Tankian’s vocals were immediate, especially in ‘Spiders’, one of the songs released as a single, with the other being ‘Sugar’. I tried to get everybody to listen to this album. I couldn’t get enough of it, be it fighting the heathens, or storming poor June. Tankian may have written a vast majority of the lyrics, Daron Malakian gets a writing credit on ‘CUBErt’, but the band utterly shred on each track. Shavo Odadjian, the coolest looking of the band, and John Dalmayan have supreme control of the songs on bass and drums respectfully. As a result, there are no weak moments on this. Listening to the album for the first time in a decade or so, I was immediately struck with how relevant it still sounded, despite the fact it was released last Century. It should be deemed a classic and is essential listening. 9/10
SoaD were then left with the supreme difficulty in trying to impress me with their 2nd album, Toxicity, released in 2001. Fresh out of university, with a job and some actual money to start building on my CD collection, I was absolutely beside myself when, on September 3rd, I was able to drive down to Our Price (gone but not forgotten record store) and pick up a shiny new copy. This excitement was peaked by my seeing for the first time at the 2001 Reading Festival a few days previous, I saw them for the final time in 2003 as well.
I was excited, but nervous. How could it match up to what I deemed to be a classic? Then ‘Prison Song’ starts and the relief sets in. Toxicity is brilliant. With Malakian having far a bigger influence in the song writing, shared with Tankian, it seems to be a more balanced album, but for me it lacks the excitement and spontaneity of their debut. Somewhat controversial, it was released just before 9/11 and features lyrics including the words, ‘Self Righteous Suicide’ in ‘Chop Suey’, it didn’t hinder the sales. Indeed, ‘Chop Suey’ is one of the best songs on a very strong album. This is SoaD’s 2nd essential album. 8/10
The 3rd SoaD album was released late in 2002 and was called, ‘Steal This Album’. I remember at the time there was a small furore surrounding the name of the album. Were they encouraging the thieving from music stores, illegal downloading or merely copying it from your friend? In reality, it was none of these things. It was until recently that I found out that ‘Toxicity II’ was an actual thing, where tracks had been leaked onto the internet without the knowledge or consent of the band. SoaD then decided to record/rerecord, alter/change and probably ignore some of these tracks that then became the 3rd album proper.
In truth, this was not an immediate hit for me. I found, and still do find, the opening track, ‘Chic ‘N’ Stu’ intensely irritating. I can’t elucidate further, as I don’t know why it bugs me, I just hate the chorus. Yes, there are some grade A SoaD material, ‘A.D.D. (American Dream Denial)’ is superb. However, for every ‘Mr Jack’ – Excellent, there is an ‘I-E-A-I-A-I-O’ – not so excellent. It is an album that sounds like the band didn’t want to release. It is also an album that is also quite critical to the evolution of the band, a juxtaposition if ever there was one. 7/10
‘Mesmerize’ was the 4th album and it was released in May 2005 and it was noticeable that the dynamic in the band was different. No longer was Tankian the sole lead vocalist. Malakian was now sharing vocal duties, having moved on from the previous harmonising. With the best will in the world, Daron Malakian is not in the same league as Tankian as a vocalist. I mean this as no slight, Serj Tankian is an outstanding singer that few other vocalists could match on a SoaD album.
The ultimate effect of this is that ‘Mesmerize’ is often disjointed, with the twin vocals struggling to intertwine. Songs like the thrashtastic, ‘Cigaro’ are almost ruined by Malakian advising that his ‘cock is much bigger than yours’. In saying this, the trademark lyrical themes are still in play, and the band stay true to their beliefs. The fact is the album is just a little bit off. 7/10
A mere 6 months later, ‘Hypnotize’was the 5th and final album (so far) to be released by SoaD. Ostensibly recorded within the timeframe as its predecessor, it is essentially, if not part of a double album, a true companion piece for ‘Mesmerize’. Again, we have the dual vocal attack throughout a lot of the album, but it is when they main protagonists harmonise that the album hits its heights especially in 2nd track ‘Dreaming’ which has some wonderful moments.
Within the 2 releases, there is a truly outstanding album (think Use Your Illusion), but unfortunately these albums do contain filler, which is disappointing. We can speculate, perhaps, that the guys released these 2 albums because of the ‘Toxicity’/’Steal This Album’ debacle with unreleased and unfinished tracks being dumped online. 8/10
I must admit that, at the time, I really disliked the final 2 albums. I felt like the band had blown a huge opportunity to dominate an area of metal that had been vacated by RATM, a band delivering songs with political and social disparity messages. I was truly disappointed. It was this fact that led me to comment on Facebook posts by Gareth Endean in the Half Ton of Heavy Metal Facebook page. I essentially said these albums were pish, to which Gareth promptly and subtlety advised me I may be wrong.
I had not listened to a System of a Down album for many many years, probably 15 years in the case of the last 3. I was presently surprised. I have missed SoaD and the later albums are far better than I have given them credit for. I have been very pleasantly surprised and this has been a very enjoyable retrospective for me.
- System of a Down
- Steal This Album
- Find out more – Check out Serj Tankian’s 2007 solo album, Elect the Dead
- Off the beaten track – check out the bands 2001/2003 Reading Festival sets on You Tube.