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Rock in a hard place
System of a Down’s struggle to be themselves
Related Links

System of a Down's official Web site

Matt Ashare reviews System of a Down's Mezmerize.

Four years ago, shortly after September 11, System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian posted a thoughtful, provocative, prescient essay titled "Understanding Oil." It attempted to place the events of 9/11 in historical context by explaining how US policy in the Middle East throughout the 20th century had invited such an attack. And it warned that a US military response could exacerbate the situation.

To anyone familiar with the explosive fusion of metallic guitars, politically charged lyrics, and a rap-rock delivery that had earned System of a Down’s homonymous 1998 debut comparisons with Rage Against the Machine, "Understanding Oil" couldn’t have come as too big a surprise. But as an LA band who’d emerged at the height of so-called new metal, System of a Down were also lumped in with bands like Incubus (with whom they toured early on), Korn, and Limp Bizkit. It wasn’t until the band had released their second album, Toxicity (Columbia), on September 4, 2001, and "Understanding Oil" went up on their Web site that the full impact of Tankian’s political stance was felt. In response to a wave of controversy that brought the band death threats, Tankian removed "Understanding Oil" and replaced it with a conciliatory note: "I would not be alive if not for the American orphanages that raised my grandfather after the Armenian Genocide of 1915, so I have a lot of love and respect for the good things that America has and can continue to achieve."

But Tankian, who founded the non-profit political organization Axis for Justice with Audioslave’s Tom Morello, and his mates weren’t ready to back down. In 2002 they released the full-length Steal This Album (Columbia), and earlier this year they followed that up with the chart-topping Mezmerize (Columbia), the first of a two-album salvo (Hypnotize is due in November) and a disc that opens with some of the band’s most politically explosive lyrics. After a short, elegiac intro, "Soldier Side," the band tear into "B.Y.O.B.," which goes from tightly wound screamo verses with lyrics like "You depend on our protection yet you feed us lies from the tablecloth" into the melodic refrain "Everybody's going to the party have a real good time/Dancing in the desert blowing up the sunshine." And the ending could have been pulled from a Dead Kennedys album: "Why don’t presidents fight the war?/Why do they always send the poor?" It’s hardly a retreat from "Understanding Oil." But System of a Down are hardly Tankian’s bully pulpit, either. As both he and guitarist Daron Malakian (who co-writes and produces all of the band’s material) point out when I catch them individually on the phone in the midst of a tour with the Mars Volta that brings them to Worcester’s DCU Center this Saturday, there’s more to SOAD then politics.

"I’d rather let the music speak for itself," Tankian says. "When people just talk about politics, it becomes one-dimensional. But when people talk about politics as part of the larger picture, it’s fine. It’s a tough road, not because of the reactions or condemnations or program directors dropping our single, which happened when Toxicity came out and I made that ‘Understanding Oil’ statement, but because things like that can just blow up in your face. I mean, I was just trying to make sense of the 9/11 situation. I was like, ‘What the fuck, you can’t even say what you think.’ Since then we’ve kept to our own. We do our own thing. People don’t expect us to be silent. Yet we also don’t want to be anybody’s political voice. If anything, I want people to know us not just as a political band. You know, the Beatles spoke out against the Vietnam War. But no one remembers them as just a political band, because they had love songs and quirky songs. And if you look at our albums, there are probably only two or three political songs out of 14 — the rest are either socially inclined, personal stories, theoretical excursions, or quirky shit. For example, I was doing another interview and the person said, ‘What separates you from Rage Against the Machine?’ I said, ‘Our song "Bounce" is about a pogo-stick orgy.’ That’s what makes us different."

Indeed, once you get past Mezmerize’s opening salvo, Tankian and Malakian, with muscular support from bassist Shavo Odadjian and drummer John Dolmayan, embark on a tangled journey that’s as confusing as it is compelling. "Revenga" is pop metal with prog refrains and stream-of-conscious-like lyrics; the pounding "Cigaro" opens with the high-pitched boast "My cock is much bigger than yours"; a clean guitar intro gives way to a playful, punchy wall of guitars that then transforms into a parody of a polka as Malakian sings, "Hey man, look at me rockin’ out/I’m on the radio." Infectious eclecticism holds the album together, not a political slogan.

"System of a Down are one of the most misunderstood bands around," Malakian insists. "I mean, Armenian rock? What the fuck is that? Political? I could name so many more of our songs that aren’t about politics than ones that are. And for a long time, everyone thought Serj wrote all of our tunes. Until this album came out, people thought he wrote all the lyrics. So there are so many different misunderstandings of System of a Down that I don’t even let it bother me anymore. I’m just kind of used to it. Our first bio said something like ‘four guys based out of LA who are Armenian and political,’ and, well, it wasn’t really right at all. I mean, we are all Armenian, but we didn’t plan that."

As both Tankian and Malakian tell it, SOAD came together the way most bands do: they all played in different bands in and around the same scene (LA) until they found one another. That they all are of Armenian descent is, as they’ve explained from the start, a happy accident. "The biggest misconception is that we’re all from Glendale," says Tankian. "None of us is from Glendale, but everyone I meet in LA assumes we’re from Glendale because there’s a huge Armenian community in Glendale. It’s music that brought us together, not our culture. But our culture has helped to keep us together. There’s a certain understanding and respect that we have for one another. But we all just learned of each other through other people we played with and through other bands breaking up and sharing rehearsal spaces. The fact that it worked out the way it has is a little strange. I do believe in partial destiny. I call it partial destiny because I believe that we have a hand in creating our own destiny. But I also believe that there is a direction that is given to us in the choices that we have. And we all picked ones that brought us together as a band."

Malakian, who does more singing on Mezmerize then he has on previous SOAD albums, and who seems to be more comfortable stepping forward as a spokesman, does feel that people are now getting to know System of a Down for who they are. "When we first started the band here in LA, Jane’s Addiction was the band we looked up to. They came out at a time when there was a lot of glam rock and hair bands and they got put into that category, but they stood out because they were doing their own thing. We were kind of caught in the same kind of situation at another time: there were a lot of new-metal bands and we’d get put into that category even though we didn’t fit. It’s funny that now there’s bands like Mars Volta doing this prog-rock thing that’s kinda getting popular, people put us in that genre now. That may be closer to the truth, but I think Hypnotized is going to go further in terms of getting people to understand what we’re doing."

System of a Down + the Mars Volta | DCU Center, 50 Foster St, Worcester | August 27 |617.931.2000

Issue Date: August 26 - September 1, 2005
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