Wed Oct 5, KeyArena, 7 pm, $31.50–$44, all ages.
In the insular world of mainstream metal where thousands of bands look and sound exactly alike, and use the same vaguely Satanic font for their band logos, such factors as original concepts, progressive politics, and ethnic influences are not at a premium. One outfit that has strayed from the conventional at every turn is System of a Down, perhaps the freakiest group to ever sell millions of records.
Four Armenian dudes from L.A. sporting funky goatees, SOAD first came onto the scene in the late '90s, at the same time as nu-metal was spreading like bad acne amongst pierced mall rats. They were originally lumped in as a niche act along with bands hidden in idiotic masks, but broke off from that pack by virtue of actually writing intelligent songs.
Everything seemed to coagulate perfectly on 2001's stunning Toxicity, a record that came along like a fierce kick to the loins. Featuring "Chop Suey!" and "Toxicity," the most spastic singles to ever be played on radio continuously, Toxicity was wholly noncommercial and ferociously berserk. Pulverizing crunch chords piled up like giant steel planks, their peculiar time changes could throw an elephant off balance, and genuinely melodic parts were trapped between blistering metal anthems. Toxicity also showcased power drill–like beats, drunken clown rhythms, and a delicate balance of fury and melody, which the band pulls off exquisitely. Another key component: singer Serj Tankian's sometimes screwball, but more often dramatic, vocals that are squarely in the metal tradition of operatic exaggeration.
In "Deer Dance," one of Toxicity's indignant protest songs, the lyrics were inspired by the police riots at the 2000 Democratic National Convention, when mounted cops cleared thousands of protestors with a flurry of rubber bullets. ("Beyond the Staples Center/You can see America/With its tired poor avenging disgrace/Peaceful loving youth against the brutality/Of plastic existence.") The brutal chorus "Pushing little children/With their fully automatics/They like to push the weak around" pummels the listener to the ground like a testosterone-laden LAPD thug.
One of the main issues creeping into all their releases, though, is an awareness of the Armenian Genocide (1895–1915), when Ottoman Turks killed some 1.5 million Armenians. The U.S. government has never recognized the genocide for fear of upsetting its military ally, Turkey, whose government to this day denies it ever happened. The band puts real force behind this key Armenian-American issue by organizing large benefits for the Armenian National Committee of America, which lobbies Congress to officially recognize the atrocity.
As SOAD's popularity has grown exponentially, the band has made no concessions in their music or their politics. Their latest record Mezmerize, the first of a two-disc set (the second half, Hypnotize, arrives in November), is another radical slice of odd-tasting pie. Mezmerize isn't all social critique—take the blatantly silly "Old School Hollywood," which was apparently inspired by actor Tony Danza cutting in line at a baseball game. But then there's the fiery payback anthem, "Revenga," and the puzzling "Radio/Video," which have plenty of hooks, though SOAD drop wacky harmonies, perverse screeching, and circus chord progressions whenever possible.
Beyond their blasts of thunder and raining glass, SOAD once again showcase amazingly sharp lyrics. Heshers concerned with politics rarely venture beyond the issues of censorship, legalizing pot, and the evils of Christianity. More in the spirit of punk rock, SOAD are truly outraged by the millions of people forced to live below poverty in one of the world's richest nations. Their current hit, Mezmerize's "B.Y.O.B," is about how those same poor folk are shipped off to die in Iraq. With its repeated howl of "Why do they always send the poor?/Why don't presidents fight the war?" this single is a rare detour from the regular sort of moronic mouthing off one expects from Mallternative radio.
One of the album's strangest cuts is "Cigaro," which rips along at the pace of a frenzied hardcore punk tune. The song's concept is fairly simple, comparing war and global politics to a cock-sizing contest. However, SOAD may be the first metal band to make fun of machismo, tie the idea to world leaders committing genocide, and then put forth the whole argument in a song that manages to be zany and bone crunching at the same time. Bursting with new-fangled ideas like insane, pissed-off physicists, System of a Down simply stand alone.