System of a Down
The Mars Volta
On paper, it looks like an excellent pairing. After all, System of a Down is riding high on their brilliant album Mezmerize, carrying with them the kind of popularity that Metallica had when they released their Black Album. Mezmerize‘s songs are short, but take many twists and turns. A moment of pure thrash can detour into an Armenian polka, replete with falsettos, before heading back down the thrash trail. On the other side, the Mars Volta have the critically acclaimed De-Loused in the Comatorium in their back-catalog, an album of shifting textures, powerful vocals, and solid guitar work, and 2005’s equally lauded Frances the Mute. So in essence, these two bands have some symmetry, the only big difference being that SOAD keeps their kinetics limited to bursts of songs no more than four minutes in length, while MV noodle and prog their way along, often past the 10-minute mark.
System of a Down + The Mars Volta
23 Aug 2005: Continental Airlines Arena East Rutherford, NJ
Problem is, what’s on paper isn’t necessarily what happens once the game err, concert is played. In this team was one band that was clearly superior in talent, showmanship, energy, and overall stage presence. And that band wasn’t the Mars Volta.
In a word, the Mars Volta sucked. Actually, no—they didn’t suck from the get-go, they just didn’t do a hell of a lot to get the sold out Continental Airlines Arena on their side. Given an hour to do their thing, the band played only four songs—yes, FOUR! They did the first three from their current effort, Frances the Mute: “Cygnus Vismund Cygnus”, “L’Via L’Viaquez”, and “The Widow”. Though “Cygnus” was for those in the crowd who were diehard MV fans, everyone remained patient. Unlike their debut tour, the band has added a couple of horn players and a percussionist, as well as former At the Drive-in bandmate Paul Hinojos as their “sound manipulator”. After getting through “Cygnus”, the crowd was rewarded with the next two songs, each of which has gotten some radio airplay. “L’Via” was in fine form, going from breakneck speed to a slowed-down salsa part. Except for the fact that the ending stretched a tad too long, it was the best of the set. “The Widow” was the audience match/lighter/cell phone moment, as the makeshift lights swayed in time with singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s vocals. Meanwhile, guitarist Omar Lopez-Rodriguez kept his parts less flashy than usual, ceding to the horn section to fill the songs out.
But what was a passable, heading towards decent, set turned ugly: the only song from Loused the anthemic, frenetic “Drunkship of Lanterns” started. For the first five minutes or so, the song moved along at a great pace, thanks to drummer Jon Theodore’s work (he was the best musician on stage). And then, during the break before the big climax (“Carpal jets hit the ground!”), the band decided to noodle and noodle and noodle FOR 20 MINUTES!!!! It was as though there was no crowd at all—the band seemed just to be simply entertaining themselves. Finally, a chant of “YOU SUCK!” started permeating the arena. The band quickly got back on track, finished the song, and left the stage. (Personally, I love the band’s music, but I will never see them live again after this disaster.)
System of a Down came out using smoke and mirrors, literally. Their stage was free of clutter, though each member had his own rug. Even the lighting rig suspended over the stage was sparse, holding few lights. What the band did have were a couple of huge mirrors angled down to give them the appearance of being bigger than life. There was also a board behind drummer John Dolmayan that had multi-colored lights on it, creating various patterns and forming words throughout the 27-song set. A curtain, erected before the changeover, showed the shadow of guitarist Daron Malakian as he opened the set with “Soldier Side” from Mezmerize. But that curtain came to a fall with the band’s huge hit “B.Y.O.B.”, an audience scream-along, especially with the war line, “Why don’t presidents fight the war?/ Why do they always send the poor?” From that point on, the band had the crowd in its hands. Lead singer/guitarist/keyboardist Serj Tankian’s vocals are some of the strongest and tightest rock has seen since the late Freddie Mercury, and he demonstrated his chops on songs like “This Cocaine Makes Me Feel Like I’m on This Song”, “Cigaro”, and “Chop Suey!”. Malakian, who looked like he consumed 20 cups of coffee before he hit the stage, only stood still to sing into his mic. Even as a whirling dervish, Malakian proved he’s one of the best guitarists in rock today, firing leads and rhythms all around. Bassist Shavo Odadjian kept his end of the band bargain with heavy bottom ends, and Dolmayan, the unsung hero, somehow kept this frenzy from spiraling out of control with solid work in the engine room.
The band did all but two songs from Mezmerize, leaving out “Radio/Video” and “Old School Hollywood”. Toxicity was well represented too, with such powerhouses as “Prison Song”, “Needles”, “Deer Dance”, “Bounce”, and the title song. One song came from Steal This Album: “Mr. Jack”, and a few from their debut, including the final two songs: “Suite-Pee” and “Sugar”. They also previewed a song from the upcoming Hypnotize, an album that was recorded at the same time as Mezmerize, and according to some people who were there is even better—the working song title is “Kill Rock n Roll”.
The crowd wouldn’t stop cheering, shouting, and (for those lucky enough to be on the floor) moshing. Even with all their eccentricities, the band builds a bridge for their fans to easily walk over. SOAD did do something that most headliners would never dream of: no encore. As soon as “Sugar” was done, the band came out to the front of the stage (except the shy Dolmayan), took their bows, headed off, and let the house lights came up. Puzzled looks appeared, but after 100 minutes of 27 songs at max volume, there was nothing to complain about at least as to System of a Down’s set. Unless you’re into the halcyon days of Jefferson Airplane or the Syd Barrett era of Pink Floyd, avoid the Mars Volta like the plague. But System of a Down are worth every minute, and what’s more, they actually use every minute to the fullest.