Released in 2001, System of a Down’s sophomore album Toxicity was an important one, bearing three vital characteristics that popular music was sorely lacking: it gave the masses a hook-laden album that still remained true to its hardcore roots, it took the stale “nu-metal” genre into all-new territory, establishing the band as one of the most vital forces in heavy music, and it also provided young listeners a razor-sharp voice of political dissent, something that had been sorely missing since the demise of Rage Against the Machine. Fronted by the outspoken, powerful-voiced Serj Tankian and guitarist extraordinaire Daron Malakian, System of a Down combined the whacked-out genius of Frank Zappa, 1980s aggro punk like the Dead Kennedys, old-school thrash metal, and Eastern musical influences into an unmistakably original signature sound of their own. Toxicity took things considerably more further than their eponymous debut album, possessing more of a grandiose feel, the band completely unafraid to shed their punk roots a bit more and go for the really soaring, transcendent melodies. The album was a roaring success, as the band co-headlined the 2002 Ozzfest tour. The only question that remained at the end of the year was, “So what are they going to do next?”
Well, their answer is to throw their now-huge number of fans a bone, in the form of studio leftovers to tide them over until the official follow-up album comes out. Nirvana did the same thing when they released Incesticide back in 1992, on the heels of the monstrously popular Nevermind, and like Incesticide, System of a Down’s Steal This Album! isn’t just a cheap mish-mash of junky outtakes. In fact, it only further proves how good a band this is, and despite a few tepid moments, it hints at even more greatness on the horizon.
On their official web site, System of a Down say, “We don’t consider any of these songs B-sides or outtakes. The songs that didn’t make it onto Toxicity are as good as, if not better than the songs that did.” Indeed, the band do give these songs the full album treatment, even going as far as employing Andy Wallace to add his trademark polish to the mix. The result is a CD that sounds fantastic, but despite the blistering, aggressive production, the weaker moments on Steal This Album! are still glaringly obvious.
One of the characteristics that made Toxicity so unique was the band’s unabashed social conscience, made all the more impressive by the eloquence prevalent in Tankian’s lyric writing. On Steal This Album!, the social commentary is still there, and for the most part, the songs continue in a similar vein. This time, the band tackles gun control (“Nuguns”), globalization (“Boom!”), both songs bolstered by some scorching musicianship, with the astonishing Malakian at the helm. Unfortunately, “A.D.D. (American Dream Denial)”, despite its good intentions, lacks the originality that a song like “Deer Dance” possessed, with Tankian actually singing, “We fought your wars with all our hearts / You sent us back in body parts.” The dadaist metal strains of “Fuck the System” is even more boring, and “Chick ‘N’ Stu”, with its absurdly catchy chorus of “Pepperoni and green peppers / Mushrooms olives chives”, tries to be a critique on the insidiousness of contemporary advertising, but the lyrics merely repeat the lines, “Advertising causes need . . . Advertising’s got you on the run.”
Steal This Album!‘s best moments are actually the ones that aren’t overtly political. “Innervision” delves into more spiritual themes, featuring powerful vocals by Tankian, while “Bubbles” is a full-on metal assault combined with System’s trademark Eastern melodies. “Highway Song” is standard “I’m sitting writing poetry while staring out the window of the tour bus” musing, but it works well here, reaching similar heights as Toxicity‘s “Chop Suey”. The album climaxes with the great quartet of songs that end the record: “Egobrain” features acoustic guitar, theremin, and some refreshingly positive lyrics by Tankian (“As I turn to sand / You took me by the hand / And declared that love prevails over all”), while the heavier “Thetawaves” has Tankian blabbering about beta carotene and the national debt (trust me, it works). The totally stripped-down acoustic ballad “Roulette” is one of the most sublime moments in the band’s brief history, and the emotional “Streamline” (originally released on 2002’s The Scorpion King soundtrack album, of all things) is aided by a string section and some very Metallica-like guitar harmonies, bringing the festivities to a gripping end.
With its minimalist-to-the-extreme packaging, made to look like a homemade mix CD (a tactic used by many bands in the past, including Metallica 15 years ago), Steal This Album! really looks like a hastily-assembled B-sides compilation, but don’t let yourself be fooled. Though it has a small amount of junk, the finer moments win out in the end. On System of a Down’s official web site, Malakian says, “This record is like a bridge between Toxicity and our next studio record. It may give our fans a clue at the direction we’re headed in musically.” If that’s indeed the case, then fans have every right to be excited.
// Notes from the Road
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