Powered by Google
Editors' Picks
Arts + Books
Rec Room
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Adult Personals
Adult Classifieds
- - - - - - - - - - - -
FNX Radio
Band Guide
MassWeb Printing
- - - - - - - - - - - -
About Us
Contact Us
Advertise With Us
Work For Us
RSS Feeds
- - - - - - - - - - - -

sponsored links
- - - - - - - - - - - - -
Sex Toys - Adult  DVDs - Sexy  Lingerie

  E-Mail This Article to a Friend

Strange bedfellows
System of a Down and the growing pack of politicized rockers

» Related links

System of a Down

Tom Waits

» Related stories

Matt Ashare reviews System of a Down's Mezmerize.

System of a Down's struggle to be themselves, by Matt Ashare.

Ted Drozdowski reviews Tom Waits's • Real Gone

Ted Drozdowski reviews Tom Waits’s tales of Alice and Blood Money

Ever since Little Richard sang "awop-bop-a-loo-mop alop bam boom," the greatest rock-and-roll artists have spoken their own language. Add System of a Down to that honor roll. Their 1998 debut single, "Sugar," with its drama-queen melody, hairpin dynamic and rhythmic turns, and vocal pitch changes that surged between raging bull and sneering parrot, made it plain they had a musical vision that extended beyond the boundaries of so-called new metal — a genre built on the foundation of Metallica and bookmarked by the disparate self-parodies of Korn and Limp Bizkit.

System of a Down’s two latest albums, this summer’s Mezmerize and the new Hypnotize (both on Sony, the label that makes you pay for spyware-loaded CDs), show just how far that vision has extended as the band have stretched their tendrils of social and musical interest. Over the course of five albums, love songs and tunes about pogo-sticking have given sway, more or less, to cautionary tales of genocide inspired by the members’ Armenian heritage. Teeth-gritting fusillades of guitar and drums in lockstep made room for textural explorations and twittering intrusions of giddy six-string that jerk listeners’ ears around — sonic moments of pure "what the hell?" that make you feel you’re in an elevator that drops two floors and then suddenly catches. Which is another way of saying they’ve become a band who can take your breath away. Or give you a headache, depending on your tolerance for the weird and unexpected in the middle of songs ripe with million-dollar riffs and hooks a boy band would murder for.

Which makes this LA foursome more than a metal group. They straddle the realms of art rock, pop, and good ol’ hard rock with unusual grace. Although they sound entirely contemporary, System of a Down are the inheritors of old-school daredevil heavy-rockers like Uriah Heep and early King Crimson, brimming with musicality and invention yet pushing the envelope.

By now, almost everything has fallen into System of a Down’s sonic and lyric vocabulary. Except complacency. And Mezmerize/Hypnotize complete the shift of the group’s political focus from their back yards and the streets to the world. But there’s still that irreverent streak that led them to open Mezmerize’s "Cigaro" with the boast, "My cock is much bigger than yours." Of course, the fact that George W. Bush says the same thing to the American and Iraqi public every time he talks about "staying the course" can’t have been lost on guitarist Daron Malakian, the guiding force within the group for these two albums.

Mesmerize and Hypnotize have both hit #1 on Billboard’s Albums chart, and that will probably earn the band a Grammy, though they deserve the award for the discs’ contents. The CDs clock in at well over an hour each, and they were made together in a creative fit overseen by producer Rick Rubin (Beastie Boys, Johnny Cash, Neil Diamond, Red Hot Chili Peppers) and Malakian. Hypnotize picks up Mezmerize’s threads. The latter left us six months ago with the questions "Why don’t presidents fight the war?/Why do they always send the poor?" Hypnotize opens with "Attack," a cry for resistance, and after all sonic hell breaks out in "Tentative" — as much a speed-metal-fueled evocation of war’s deadly soundtrack as Jimi Hendrix’s Vietnam-era "Machine Gun" — gaps of silence in the song are filled by the naked chorus, "Where do you expect us to go when the bombs fall?"

Alienation and dependency also make cameos in "Lonely Day" and "She’s like Heroin," and there are broader social critiques like the title track, a slap at our culture’s market-driven heart. "Why don’t you ask the kids at Tiananmen Square/Was fashion the reason why they were there?" the song snaps as it kicks off. Malakian and lead singer Serj Tankian trade vocals on both albums, and it’s usually Tankian, with his dizzy, Faustian range, who plays the maniac, leaving Malakian as a more reasonably toned but cynically informed everyman. The contrast is another appealing element in System of a Down’s latest variation on their creative stew. And of course there are plenty of old ingredients in the recipe, like roaring guitars, full-throttle grooves, and shape-shifting time signatures. Even the theme of Armenian genocide returns in Hypnotize’s "Holy Mountains," which is a reflection on the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians by the Turkish army from 1915 to 1923 — a theme also explored in the activist/diva Diamanda Galás’s latest long-form recorded work, Defixiones: Will and Testament.

As the cliché goes, great minds think alike — even if on the surface they don’t seem to have much in common. And to pursue another cliché, lately our war-time politics have been making some strange musical bedfellows. That a pair of ostensibly metal bands, System of a Down, with 16 million albums and singles sold and still counting, and, before them, Rage Against the Machine, would emerge as leading voices in contemporary American protest music is improbable. After all, this is the genre that gave us Judas Priest and AC/DC, groups about as far removed from Joe Hill, Woody Guthrie, and the Weavers — the folk-based cornerstones of prototypical protest songwriting — as possible. (Okay, Black Sabbath did write "War Pigs." Noted.)

Recently a diverse group of artists whose previous work showed no inkling of political concerns have been rallying against the gunpowder-fueled misdeeds of right-wing leaders. The most obvious are suburban punk-poppers Green Day, who grew up without warning to present American Idiot in 2004, and now its live CD/DVD follow-up, Bullet in a Bible (both Reprise). The most surprising are the Rolling Stones, whose damn-it-all-for-rock-and-roll (and box-office grosses) attitude got put on hold for a few minutes of "Sweet Neocon." Even the late troubadour of introversion Chris Whitley took a swing at the military profiteers on 2004’s War Crime Blues (Messenger). And bluesman Robert Cray’s new Twenty (Sanctuary) offers a title track that blasts the Iraq battlefront from a soldier’s viewpoint, branding it a "rich man’s war" and describing wholesale death, finally crying, "Mother, dry your eyes/Someone told you a lie." Then there’s Tom Waits, the former beatnik poet who once boasted on a recording that he was so horny, the crack of dawn had better watch out. This year’s Real Gone (Anti-) also found him in a soldier’s skin, fretting that he might not make it home from the incomprehensible horrors of Iraq in "Day After Tomorrow" and lambasting the Bush legacy in "Sins of the Father."

Sure, more-traditional folk-based singer-songwriters are also rallying against the war, but the current cross-genre consensus about the fucked-up state of the union is unprecedented. It would seem to reflect a growing lack of support for the Bush administration’s military ventures and its looters’ mentality in almost all subsets of the American public, who are tired of being — as System of a Down have put it — mesmerized and hypnotized by lies.


Issue Date: December 9 - 15, 2005
Back to the Music table of contents
  E-Mail This Article to a Friend

about the phoenix |  advertising info |  Webmaster |  work for us
Copyright © 2005 Phoenix Media/Communications Group