After getting off to a blazing start, Hypnotize begins to lose its focus as the band's songwriting well runs dry.
When we last heard from System of a Down six months ago, they were concluding Disc One of their intended double album on a bitter note, singing of the jaded, phony life in Hollywood, lambasting all those maggots smoking fags out there on Sunset Boulevard. Their most accomplished outing to date, Mezmerize lived up to all the heightened expectations, delivering a hair-raising blast of modern metal, fused with punk and Eastern European musical influences, and held together by a maniacal creative spirit, offering the kind of musical variety that highlighted 2001's Toxicity, but sounding much more cohesive. With the band claiming this past summer that the second disc, Hypnotize, would be even better, fans of the band couldn't be blamed for getting just a touch excited at the prospect.
To split a double album in half and release the discs six months apart smacks of a cynical cash grab (this, ironically, coming from a band who likes to criticize consumer culture), but in the end, it turns out to be a wise move, as focusing on one disc at a time allows listeners to take their time with the music (hearing 23 new System of a Down Songs at once would be almost too overwhelming). Not only that, but music fans, especially those who like the heavy music, are a staunchly devoted bunch, and releasing two CDs in one year all but assures gigantic initial sales; Mezmerize topped the charts this past May and has since been certified platinum, and the same will likely happen for Hypnotize, as well. Although strong sales might be a lock whether or not the band would be able to successfully follow up the very impressive Mezmerize remained up in the air.
As one would expect from Side Three of a double album, the beginning of Hypnotize sounds like the band is in mid-stride, as "Attack" returns to the kind of no-frills ferocity System of a Down can do so well, with sharp, staccato riffs by guitarist Daron Malakian, the tempo shifting from mid-paced chugging, to double-time thrash, to frenzied beats by drummer John Dolmayan that border on grindcore, with the baritone/tenor lead vocal combination of Serj Tankian and Malakian working especially well. The crunching "Dreaming" sustains the momentum, highlighted by Tankian's soaring lead vocals, while the more hardcore punk-fueled "Stealing Society" contains some of Malakian's most effective vocal work, as he channels the nervous delivery of Jello Biafra during the breakdown. "Kill Rock 'n' Roll" is a good example of how the band is able to incorporate such disparate influences as metal and ska and blend the two with enough subtlety to make the shift in style less jarring.
The title track returns to the ballad style of previous singles such as "Aerials" and "Question?", and features some of the strongest lyrics on the record ("Why don't you ask the kids at Tiananmen Square?/Was fashion the reason why they were there?"), while the impassioned "Tentative" is bolstered by a beautiful breakdown, with layered vocal harmonies, synths, and the mantralike line, "Where do you expect us to go when the bombs fall?" "Holy Mountains", meanwhile, is the best song on the CD, a highly emotional account of the slaughter of one and a half million Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Turks during and after World War One. The band's proud Armenian heritage, and the song's elegiac melodies and moments of blind rage ("Liar! Murderer! Sodomizer!") makes for a devastating combination.
While the first eight tracks of Hypnotize lack the kind of manic creativity that "BYOB" exuded, the band takes a more focused and sober approach which works especially well. However, much to our surprise, after the climactic "Holy Mountains", the CD is derailed by three subpar songs, each sounding progressively worse than the other. The silly "Vicinity of Obscenity" completely kills the mood that "Holy Mountains" set, an exercise in Zappa-style surrealism in the same vein as Mezmerize's "This Cocaine Makes Me Feel Like I'm in the Song", but for all of Tankian's hollering of "Banana banana terra cotta pie!" the song sounds needlessly tacked on. Malakian's shambolic "She's Like Heroin" follows, a haphazardly arranged tune that contains the most grating lead vocals Malakian has attempted to date, the plummet in songwriting quality evinced by the fact that, a mere three minutes after the dignified "Holy Mountains", the band resorts to repeated refrains of, "ASS!" It's hard to believe, but the angst-ridden "Lonely Day" is even more disappointing. Easily the worst song System of a Down has ever recorded, Malakian sings hackneyed lyrics over a hopelessly pedestrian, Nickelback-esque arrangement ("Such a lonely day/Shouldn't exist/It's a day that I'll never miss"), the album reaching its nadir with the syntactically challenged refrain of, "The most loneliest day of my life," Malakian's straight-faced delivery of such a poorly written line sounding more embarrassing than emotional.
Even though both CDs add up to only about 70 minutes, it's clear the band has simply run out of ideas by the end. A full version of "Soldier Side", which served as a brief opener on Mezmerize, closes Hypnotize, but with the new record being so inconsistent, the song would have been a better fit thematically on Mezmerize. By destroying the momentum of the of the new record by tossing in a trio of very weak songs that are the very definition the word "filler", what could have been a landmark hard rock double album becomes merely a good one, which, considering the lofty standard set by both Toxicity and Mezmerize, makes Hypnotize all the more frustrating.