System Of A Down
Striking a balance between '80s underground thrash metal and metallic early-'90s alternative rock, Armenian-American quartet System of a Down effectively pushed their socially conscious, politically charged messages into the mosh pits during the turn-of-the-century's nu-metal wave. Their dark and wild style led them from a cult following to a full-blown movement with breakout hit Toxicity, which debuted at number one in 2001 and planted them at the top of the charts through the early 2000s with a pair of related albums, Mezmerize and Hypnotize. Soon afterward, the band took an extended hiatus, branching off into various solo projects while maintaining a cultural presence with sporadic concerts and continued efforts to spread awareness of the Armenian Genocide. They would not return until 2020 when they released their first fresh material in 15 years, "Protect the Land" b/w "Genocidal Humanoidz," the proceeds of which went to the humanitarian needs of families displaced by the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. Vocalist Serj Tankian, guitarist Daron Malakian, bassist Shavo Odadjian, and drummer John Dolmayan formed System of a Down in Southern California in the mid-'90s. They quickly earned a strong following in Los Angeles, largely based on strong word of mouth. A three-song demo began circulating through metal collectors, and their fan base soon spread throughout not only America, but Europe and New Zealand. By the end of 1997 the group had signed to American, distributed by Columbia Records. American/Columbia released the group's eponymous debut in the summer of 1998, securing the band opening spots on the Slayer and Ozzfest tours. Carried by alternative radio hits "Sugar" and "Spiders," System eventually went platinum, leading to the September 2001 release of the even more ambitious Toxicity. Their first chart-topper, System's second effort was another heavy music triumph, shaming the majority of their nu-metal competition and running away with multi-platinum honors around the world. Featuring the singles "Chop Suey!" and "Aerials," the album would become a landmark release for the period and their defining statement. Without losing momentum, Malakian started the eatURmusic imprint, and Tankian founded a label called Serjical Strike; Tankian also collaborated with Armenian avant-garde folk musician Arto Tuncboyaciyan in a project called Serart. In November 2002 System issued the bare-bones but no less powerful odds-n-ends set Steal This Album!, culled from the Toxicity sessions. By 2004, System of a Down was back in the studio with Rick Rubin. The bold result of those sessions was a single epic album released in two parts. Mezmerize/Hypnotize kept System's furious creativity alive, incorporating the wild vocal melodies, lyrical passion, and rabid structural shifts that had become their trademark. Mezmerize (Pt. 1) appeared in May 2005, while Hypnotize (Pt. 2) appeared later in the year, and both hit the top of the album charts. The following year, the group went on hiatus, with Malakian forming Scars on Broadway; Dolmayan opening an online comic book store and forming the group Indicator (he also briefly played with Scars on Broadway); Odadjian working with RZA, AcHoZeN, and George Clinton, and Tankian embarking on a solo career. While they toured off-and-on throughout the 2010s, the foursome remained split, working on their personal musical projects while continuing to raise awareness for Armenian causes. One of those -- the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war -- prompted System to reunite for the charity single "Protect the Land" b/w "Genocidal Humanoidz," which raised over half-a-million dollars for families displaced by the fighting.
© Stephen Thomas Erlewine & Neil Z. Yeung /TiVo
© Stephen Thomas Erlewine & Neil Z. Yeung /TiVo
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Metal - Released March 8, 2002 | Columbia
System of a Down's 1998 debut was initially overlooked by the mainstream hard rock audience, as well as the specialized press. But heavy metal cognoscenti in both camps quickly realized that in their hands was a potentially crucial stepping stone for the future development of heavy metal. Sure enough, so challenging and groundbreaking were its contents that the album soared over most everyone's unsuspecting heads, its eventual gold sales status only achieved via Columbia Records' massive promotional muscle and nearly three years of intensive touring on the band's part. Consequently, early believers were pleasantly surprised when 2001's long awaited follow-up, Toxicity met with instant popular acceptance, skyrocketing up the charts toward multi-platinum success. Yet, for the most part, it also managed to retained SOAD's unorthodox signature sound: so-called "nu-metal" uniquely infused with remarkable originality, including angular riffs, jagged rhythms, and oblique lyrics splattered all over the place. Like its predecessor, Toxicity seems utterly chaotic upon first listen, but things quickly begin falling into place, thanks to a number of small refinements, not least of which is a more generous melody, obviously pre-meditated, but rarely overdone. In turn, this immediacy greatly improved the album's chances at radio -- case in point, first single "Chop Suey!," a track so potent not even September 11, nor mainstream radio's ensuing self-imposed, politically correct attempt at self-censorship, could tear from the airwaves (despite its none-too-discreet lyrics about suicide), the song's surprising success was reminiscent of another left-field hit from a decade earlier, Faith No More's "Epic" (hear its piano-led outro for proof). And sure enough, from the unexpected false starts of "Prison Song" to the relatively mellow conclusion, the band's heightened commercial sensibility continues to joust with their inherently quirky songwriting. The excellent title track, "Forest," and "Science" are among the most accessible standouts from an incredibly diverse set, the likes of which SOAD's inferior nu-metal peers could only hope to emulate. Lyrically, it's simply no contest. Whether tackling typical rock subject matter like drug abuse ("Needles") and groupies ("Psycho"), or embarking on inscrutable Dadaist gems like "Jet Pilot" and "Shimmy," co-songwriters Daron Malakian and Serj Tankain sound like are the bastard children of Frank Zappa and Slayer. And while sub-Rage Against the Machine political invective (unfairly attributed to their Armenian heritage) remains an integral part of the band's creative makeup (e.g. "Deer Dance," "Atwa"), Toxicity's approach is much more cautious in this regard than that of their incendiary debut. In conclusion, when a band takes this many left turns, you'd expect them to start going in circles sooner rather than later, but this is not the case with System of a Down. Hands down one of 2001's top metal releases, Toxicity may well prove to be a lasting heavy metal classic to boot. © Eduardo Rivadavia /TiVo