“I cry when angels deserve to die,” vocalist Serj Tankian screams in System of a Down’s angsty hit song, “Chop Suey!” If you think that’s the only corny moment of teenage nostalgia I have with alternative metal band System of a Down, trust me: it really isn’t. Yet almost a decade after after their relevance peaked with 2006’s “Hypnotize,” I still enjoy their body of work and think that their material will resonate with even those who aren’t 16-year-olds angry at their parents.
Their first and self-titled album is actually about as far away from immature as possible, with deliberately written growling vocals, heavy powerful guitars and pounding drums. Many of the songs deal with mature topics like the Armenian genocide, censorship, political greed and drug abuse.
While songs like “Sugar” are a bit more silly in their delivery, with absurd, if not totally abstract lines like “the kombucha mushroom people sitting around all day,” others songs, like “P.L.U.C.K.” have pretty graphic lyrics regarding mass murder. Even “Soil” – perhaps the angriest song ever written – is about a friend committing suicide and the band’s mixed feelings about dealing with their loss.
System of a Down retain their edge on their second album, “Toxicity,” but also add a level of commercialization with the aforementioned “Chop Suey!” and “Aerials,” both of which strongly feature powerful vocals from Tankian. Songs like “Prison Song,” “Needles,” and “Forest” also add groovy guitar tracks from guitarist Daron Malakian. The content remains mostly unchanged, with several songs being pretty clearly anti-war and criticizing the prison system within the United States – both topics which rose in prominence after 9/11.
While 2002’s “Steal This Album!” wasn’t a bad release on its own, for a System of a Down album, it was pretty weak, with no memorable singles and the feeling of being released more as a political statement during a time when services like Napster were under fire for promoting file sharing. Many of the songs feel like leftover songs they never finished and don’t deviate much from their previous material, with no notable shift in musical direction.
Three years later, “Mezmerize” blew away all expectations, showcasing the band at their best: with heaviness appealing to older fans and accessibility for newer ones. Unlike previous albums, Tankian and Malakian actually share main vocal duties and creating beautiful singing harmonies on multiple songs, especially the softer ones like “Lost in Hollywood, and “Soldier Side – Intro.”
“Mesmerize” also arguably has the band’s finest singles out of all their albums, with “B.Y.O.B” and “Radio/Video” adding a level of radio-worthy accessibility to the band, without compromising their highly political and controversial style. Even their sillier songs like “This Cocaine Makes Me Feel Like I’m On This Song” and “Cigaro” show the band doesn’t take themselves too seriously.
Their subsequent and final 2006 release “Hypnotize” had a few good songs, like the eccentric “She’s Like Heroin” and ridiculous “Vicinity of Obscenity.” However, Malakian, while still solid in harmonies, sometimes overbearingly dominates the vocals, with his occasionally whining voice steering a little too close to emo rather than rock or metal. This happens on numerous tracks – especially “Lonely Day”, which sounds more like something you’d listen to if you were a teenager. Listening it today: not so much.
That said, System of a Down still has plenty of strengths that make them a legendary band in the worlds of metal and rock. While teenage me might be disappointed years later by their hiatus and lack of new material, current me is happy to take the band at face value and enjoy their old content.