System of a Down – Mesmerize Review

It is a little insulting to System of a Down to be lumped in with the nu-metal craze of the late ’90s. They were so much more versatile, aware, and progressive than anything those bands were trying to accomplish. The only benefit to such generalizing was that they got on the radio and they more than made the most of it. Because a group of Armenians were singing songs that vaguely sounded like it advocated suicide bombers, Toxicity received mainstream attention for all the wrong reason in 2001. Those who gave it an honest listen heard a groups lofty ambitions that were only hinted at on their debut come to fruition, a band that saw behind labels, knew the musical threads and easily tied them together. It was the best album in a year that saw releases from Beck, Radiohead, and The Strokes debut.

To paraphrase the immortal Rakim, it’s been a long time since they left us, four years to be exact. Mesmerize is the opening salvo of a two disc collection planned for this year, with Hypnotize planned for late October/early November. Though never predictable, fans of System’s material knows the paths the music takes, if never quite sure of the direction. Expect moments of blinding speed, intense thrash, beautiful passages, and quirky interludes, sometime all in the same song. “Radio/Video,” for example, moves from SpecialsSerj [Tankanian, lead singer] and Daron [Malakian, guitar] that helped create Toxicity’s is here in an even heavier dose. The opening “Soldier Side” is a gentle acoustic melody that fades in with the duo waxing existential poetry (“People all grow up to die/There is no one here but me”), a sharp contrast to the controlled chaos of “Prison Song” which began their previous effort, but no less effective. The rhythm section of Shavo{Odadjian, bass] and John {Dolmayan, drums] have always been a little overlooked, if not underappreciated. They shine here as they pull of some of the most drastic time shifts in their catalogue, and certainly for any “mainstream” album this year.

And as their musical references range from Bad Brains to Slayer to the soundtrack of Fiddler on the Roof, so to does the lyrical content vary from the ridiculous to politically conscious. Only System could open one song with “Why do they always send the poor?” (First single, “B.Y.O.B”), and then two tracks later begin with “My cock is bigger than yours” (“Cigaro”). Their ability to reach to so many people is due in part to them embracing who they are; young, politically active, spiritual revelers that readily partake of all of the vices available in Los Angeles. They are, in effect, a walking contradiction.

Speaking of System’s hometown, the city of angles takes front and center on the closing portion of the album, showing up in two song titles. “Old School Hollywood” describes Daron’s experience at a celebrity baseball game and clues in an entire new generation on Frankie Avalon. The lighthearted attack on the pretensious is only a set up for the much more acerbic “Lost in Hollywood.” As Daron sings “phony people come to pray/look at all of them beg to stay,” you can hear his disgust towards the ersatz environment he calls home, where faith and fad are one in the same.

System’s strongest weapon isn’t that they are able to seamlessly interweave punk, metal, jazz, traditional Greek and Jewish folk music, etc; any band can do that on a superficial level. It’s that they are students of each element. If they decided to make a straight political punk or thrash metal album, for example, it would be amazing. The fact that such an undergoing would be boring for them is all the better for us.

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