Three years and eight months after the release of Toxicity, one of this decade’s most corrosively powerful, relevant and down-right important albums, System of a Down— guitarist/singer Daron Malakian, singer Serj Tankian, bass player Shavo Odadjian and drummer John Dolmayan—unleashes Mezmerize /Hypnotize… Well, actually, what they’re doing is unleashing half of it—the Mezmerize half—with the understanding that attention spans aren’t what they used to be in the Too-Much-Information Age.
You can count on System, one of rock’s most daring and innovative bands, to do things in its own way, and with a level of commitment that’ll knock the wind right out of you. “This band’s what Public Enemy once was and what Rage Against the Machine never quite managed to be: the potent trifecta of credibility, sincerity and real danger,” pronounced Esquire on naming them “Best Agitators” in the magazine’s 2005 Esky Music Awards. If you were looking for the ultimate one-sentence summation of this extraordinary band, that’s pretty good. Malakian has his own take. “We’re really an honest band—that’s why people are listening to us,” he asserts. “We’re not bullshitting ourselves and we’re not bullshitting them.”
Tankian’s take is even more succinct. “Our music has always been urgent, critical and questioning, and that still remains,” he says.
“We’re artists for the sake of art,” Tankian continues. “And our expression is pure and natural in terms of where it comes from. I think that’s always better with art because, once you have something in mind and you try to achieve it, it becomes less pure in some ways. If you just let whatever expression there is come out—it might be socially viable, it might be political, romantic, humorous, a personal narrative, a philosophical thought, whatever it is—if it’s pure and it just comes out and you leave it that way, I think it’s more potent. I think it’s more real.”
Fate chose this group of Armenian Americans, two of whom were born in Lebanon, one in Armenia and another in Hollywood, as unknowing prophets. Toxicity, System’s second album, appeared on Sept. 4, 2001 and was at the top of the charts on Sept. 12, while America and the world were paralyzed with grief, shock and fear. Perhaps because the music of Toxicity was so uncompromising and yet so full of humanity at its extremes, it provided a suitably harrowing soundtrack for that unimaginable moment, striking a deep nerve. The album generated four Top 10 singles, including the #1 “Aerials,” and went on to sell 6 million copies, establishing System not as some prefab mainstream commercial entity but rather as an urgent voice in the uncharted wilderness that was heard—and believed—by a great many human beings.
Just over a year later, the band offered up Steal This Album!, made up of tracks that had been started during the Toxicity sessions but didn’t fit that album’s dedicated confrontational vibe—tracks that put a greater emphasis on melody and the two-part harmonies of Malakian and Tankian. With Steal!, System, which up to that point had pitched nothing but fastballs (although some were of the split-finger variety), showed that it had a command of all kinds of stuff, and potent stuff at that. Thus, Mezmerize /Hypnotize is both the long-awaited follow-up to Toxicity in big-picture terms and a natural progression from Steal This Album! in a musical sense.
“People ask, ‘How are you gonna compete with Toxicity?’” Malakian points out. “And the answer is: by not competing with it. By not being afraid to use the new ideas that we have. Some bands are afraid of their fans: ‘They’re not gonna like this and they’re not gonna like that.’ We don’t have that mindset. We’ve gotta impress ourselves before we impress the fans—you gotta love yourself first, you know? I’ve gotta feel like we have everything it takes to make a record that’s better than anything we’ve done.”
“I look at everything we do as a continuation because it’s the same band and the same four individuals,” says Dolmayan, “So Mezmerize /Hypnotize is still System of a Down, but definitely there’s a huge growth. It’s more melodic but at the same time more aggressive. Every album captures where you are at that moment, but almost instantly you’re in a new place, as soon as it’s recorded, so it’s just basically a window into where you’re going in the future. And how people want to look at that and understand it is really up to each individual.”
Malakian not only produced the band’s magnum opus with Rick Rubin, as he did with Toxicity and Steal This Album!, but also increased his already considerable song, arrangement and vocal contributions, stepping forward both as a lead vocalist and as one half of System’s distinctive harmonies. Malakian’s increased foreground presence poses no problems for Tankian. “It’s not hard for me because we’ve been working together for over 10 years,” Serj points out. “I don’t necessarily encompass his words when I sing them—I approach them from my perspective and what they make me feel.” This is the same sort of statement one might expect to hear from Mick Jagger in describing his relationship with Keith Richards, or Robert Plant on Jimmy Page.
Likewise, Tankian, who shared production chores on Toxicity, broadened his own contributions in terms of writing music and arranging. In addition to writing more than half of the lyrics for both Mezmerize and Hypnotize, he played acoustic guitars, pianos and synths on the new album, as well as handling the string arrangements, doing most of it in his well-appointed home studio. There’s a great deal of back and forth between them in the creation of material, as Malakian explains: “I might have a great chorus but I don’t think the verse is that great, so I’ll ask Serj, ‘Can you make the verse better?’ And he does the same thing with me on stuff that he writes.” Both artists, then, have stepped up and branched out as their band matures, but their interaction is ongoing. So many great rock & roll bands have been led by tandems, and System of a Down is no exception.
System of a Down wrote some 30 tracks for Mezmerize/Hypnotize and recorded them at Rubin's Laurel Canyon studio between June and November of 2004. The new songs are more complex, more progressive, more unorthodox and more experimental than ever, while retaining the idiosyncratic, ironic and schizophrenic qualities that make System of a Down so distinctive. Among the uncompromising songs contained on Mezmerize are “Cigaro,” “Violent Pornography,” “Sad Statue,” “Radio/Video” and “Revenga.”
According to Malakian, the ramping up of melody and vocal interaction between the two collaborators is “part of the band’s evolution.” His priorities in developing the material for Mezmerize/Hypnotize involved “just being honest as a writer—not being afraid to express different parts of my life and different parts of what I see around me. Some people kind of censor themselves; I don’t and this band doesn’t. It’s a crazy time in the world, and I just stay focused on being inspired, not only by the crazy times but also by everyday life. It all meshes together. You can look at these songs from the viewpoint of a normal Joe or you can look at it in a broader way, because there’s a world going on around this normal Joe.”
The new album’s character is encapsulated by the jaw-dropping first single, “B.Y.O.B.,” with its myriad shifts in tempo, tone and viewpoint. The track starts out with System’s signature teeth-baring ferocity, as Tankian howls like an opera singer on steroids about a world gone mad while his cohorts impersonate the RATATAT of an AK47. Then, just as abruptly, a second protagonist comes into the frame, this one a carefree dude cruising eastward on the San Bernardino Freeway en route to a party in the desert, the scene delivered via a delectable minor-key pop hook. Thereafter, like some chemically amplified fever dream, the settings keep shifting until they begin to overlap, and a voice—Malakian’s—screams, “Blast off / It’s party time / And where the fuck are you?,” setting up the bitter incantation, in yet a third distinct time signature, that sends the song—and the listener—over the edge: “Why don’t presidents fight the war? / Why do they always send the poor? / Why do they always send the poor?” The song is so epic that it seems much bigger than its 4:17 length, and when it’s over, the listener is spent, enraged and exhilarated, all at once. And that’s just the first track of an album that packs a world of compressed fury into its 37 minutes. But it isn’t gratuitous fury.
“Originally, there was, in my own performance—on the first album, for example—a lot more ferocity and rage and aggression in terms of how I expressed myself,” Serj points out. “Whereas, now, it’s almost like a way of shaking things up to raise my voice, to communicate on an intense-energy level—which I would say is as powerful as anger and rage, yet more focused and productive.”
The album ends—this half of Mezmerize/Hypnotize does, at any rate—just as thrillingly as it begins, with Malakian’s double-cheeseburger reflection on his ugly, beautiful and bizarre hometown, comprising the Spandex-style rocker “Old School Hollywood” (ironic, maybe, but bitchen for sure), inspired in part by his surreal experience on the field at Dodger Stadium for the 2003 celebrity game, segueing into “Lost in Hollywood,” a bittersweet journey back to “the streets where I grew up,” which has to be the most beautiful and haunting song this band has ever recorded. Admittedly, “bittersweet,” “beautiful” and “haunting” haven’t been used a whole lot in describing System of a Down up to now, but this band is endlessly surprising, and they refuse to be typecast. From moment to moment within any given track, they might be perceived as art rock, hard rock, Floydian prog-rock, psychedelia, politically charged hardcore, nu-metal, old metal or even Gilbert & Sullivan from some parallel universe, but in the end they’re System, period—unpredictable and indescribable.
“In terms of dichotomy and the dynamics of the songs, it just kind of comes naturally through Daron’s songwriting and my songwriting,” says Tankian. “We just go with it. To me, it’s always been interesting both musically and lyrically to put two things next to each other that don’t have a previous relationship and see what kind of relationship I can create out of them, because I think that’s creating something new. If you can make it work, it’s fun.”
The band has no overriding concept, meaning each of their albums is—just as Dolmayan says—essentially a representation of these particular individuals at a particular moment in time. Simple, right? Right. And also incredibly complex—as complex as human beings and the world they’re living in, a world seemingly without absolutes or easy answers.
“I don’t really have a side—I’m not red or blue,” says Malakian. “And since I did write a good part of the lyrics on this record, the songs tend to take a middle ground rather than being one-sided about it. I think that’s why my world and Serj’s come together so well lyrically, because he’s more politically motivated and I’m not, but some of his stuff makes mine more serious, and some of my stuff makes his stuff a little bit more human. As I was sequencing the records, I realized that if I went to a shrink and he hypnotized me, I would be singing some of these songs.”
“I don’t feel any particular responsibility in discussing social or political things,” Tankian explains. “It’s something that’s in my heart. I’ve always had a problem with injustice, whether it’s personal, national, international or universal. It’s just always bothered me to the point where I have to say or do something. I think action is worth a million words, though, as far as that’s concerned. But ultimately, if there’s one thing I’d like to do more than anything else, it’s to not take this life so seriously.”
There’s not a trace of arrogance in this band, despite the scope of its success. In its place is a disarming humility. “I didn’t find music—music found me,” Malakian says, clearly in awe of the part he feels destiny tapped him to play. Odadjian is similarly grateful to be where he is in life. “Every day that comes, I thank my Higher Power that I’m alive and doing what I do for a living, because I love it,” he says. “It’s something I’ve dreamt of doing, and I’ve worked my ass off to get where I’m at. I don’t take any of it for granted.”
They operate as a democracy, with each band member embracing his own particular role while contributing to System’s unorthodox but remarkably harmonious dynamic, which comprises intricate relationship vectors. Odadjian, for example, handles System’s stage production and is involved with the band’s videos as a director (Toxicity’s “Chop Suey” and “Aerials”) and editor (“B.Y.O.B.”) “We have our arguments,” Dolmayan acknowledges, “but in the end, if someone has a compelling argument, everyone else will listen, even if that person’s in the minority. So it’s a true democracy in that everyone’s voice is heard.” Dolmayan pauses for the punch line. “Some people talk more than others,” he quips.
And speaking of relationships, System has a deep connection with its audience. The band’s fans seem to receive the music precisely in the spirit in which it’s offered, making it the rarest of situations—particularly in the context of commercial art forms—and certainly the most rewarding. “The impact that we’ve had on people, artistically, socially and politically, is pretty amazing,” Tankian marvels. “It’s a huge compliment, and it’s a very special thing. I think System of a Down in itself is very special in that sense.
“It’s about the audience finding you, rather than you finding the audience,” Tankian offers. “A lot of bands are marketed by labels to certain demographics. With us it was just the opposite from Day One. We toured pretty heavily until we built up a certain amount of fans that bought our CDs and saw our shows before we approached radio or video in any way. So that set us apart. That’s the old-fashioned way, and it’s how bands should be broken. And that’s why I think—luckily—we’ve had a good long career, and one that’s perpetually increasing. We’re not an overnight-success kind of band.”
Remember, Mezmerize is only the first half of this serial double album, so expect another sheaf of surprises when Hypnotize sees the light of day later this year. “The end of Hypnotize will tie together Mezmerize,” Daron promises, “but it’s really tough to explain until you hear it. Individually, in my opinion, they both stand on their own, but until you hear the second one you won’t know how the two records come together as one. We’re not leavin’ you dry.”
Don’t expect these guys to ever follow any script but their own—they make it up as they go along, and yet it always turns out to be right on the nose.
“I think you do what you’re destined to do,” says Tankian, expressing what could serve as his band’s credo. “If you follow your heart and you follow your path, then you’ll always be safe with anything that you do, including art.”
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