System of a Down have exceeded expectations, and they're only halfway done.
The massive popularity of System of a Down remains one of the unlikeliest rock success stories in the past five years. Seriously, how on earth could a band of eccentric Armenian-Americans, equally influenced by classic Los Angeles hardcore, '80s metal, Middle Eastern music, funk, and Frank Zappa become one of the most popular heavy acts in America today? Perhaps it's the way the wildly inventive band balances complex time signatures with moshpit anthems. Or maybe it's the way they offset their often heavy-handed lyrics with devilishly facetious exercises in sophomorism. Or it could be that whatever they're playing, be it a complex, four minute suite, a rampaging aggro rant, or a soaring, majestic ballad, the music has a catchy quality to it that nobody from the increasingly irrelevant nu-metal subgenre has even come close to matching.
Whatever the reason, it's clear that there is a very strong demand for exciting, daring new heavy music, and this band has become a force over a very short time span: their ambitious second album Toxicity debuted at number one on the Billboard album chart, "Chop Suey" and "Aerials" became mainstream rock radio hits, and 2003's Steal This Album!, their fascinating collection of studio left-overs, was also well received. With their diverse influences and gifted musicianship, System of a Down has become the most exciting of rock bands, one whose next musical direction is impossible to predict, and their long-awaited follow-up to Toxicity is one of the year's most highly anticipated releases.
Even though we all expected some surprises from these guys, they've still managed to pull the rug out from under us. The first half of a supposedly intended double album, Mezmerize is the sharpest, most focused release of the band's career so far. At a very taut 36 minutes, releasing half of a double album is a smart move, both financially (the band has a great shot at topping the charts twice in one year), and artistically, as the shorter running time allows listeners to more easily grasp the band's sometimes maddening ambition. And is this album ever crammed with nutty ideas.
In fact, barely one minute into Mezmerize, we're being bombarded by "B.Y.O.B.", the most wickedly original song System of a Down has ever recorded. After the somber intro track "Soldier Side", "B.Y.O.B." bursts out of the gate at a breakneck thrash metal pace, guitarist Daron Malakian delivering lithe riffs, while bassist Shavo Odadjian and drummer John Dolmayan provide a frenetic, double time rhythm section, before singer Serj Tankian enters, spouting his anti-war rhetoric. Everything goes smoothly, perhaps a little too comfortably, but then from out of nowhere, comes a catchy, devilishly facetious chorus, so heavily influenced by R&B, it's disarming, as Tankian satirizes the ongoing war in Iraq with the breezy line, "Everybody's going to the party have a real good time/Dancing in the desert blowing up the sunshine." The song shifts ingeniously back and forth, from pop melodies to metal blastbeats, culminating in the repeated refrain, "Why don't the presidents fight the war?/Why do they always send the poor?"
The rest of the album, astonishingly, maintains the same pace the rest of the way. "Revenga" shifts from a metal gallop, to insanely fast, Bad Brains style vocal turns, to a melodic, pensive chorus, all in mere seconds. "Radio/Video" has the band setting their sights on another easy and obvious target, today's fame-obsessed culture, but the mood is instantly lightened by accordion-driven breakdowns that sound like ska and polka commingling, which would seem a ludicrous idea, if it didn't work so damn well. The last half of Mezmerize comes to a scintillating close, first on the lovely "Question", a continuation from where "Aerials" left off four years ago, as Tankian waxes philosophic, musing enigmatically, "Do we know/When we fly/When we go/Do we die?" The ferocious "Sad Statue" combines potent metal riffs with thought-provoking lyrics that assess today's America and its youth culture: "Forgiveness is the ultimate sacrifice... We'll all go down in history/With a sad Statue of Liberty/And a generation that didn't agree." Like their fellow Angelenos in Tool, System of a Down love to take shots at Hollywood, and the final two tracks are merciless, first on the goofy celebrity baseball fantasy "Old School Hollywood", and then on the venomous mini-epic "Lost in Hollywood", which comes close to matching the seething misanthropy of Tool's masterful "Ænima".
The main drawbacks of Toxicity were the band's repeated forays into sophomoric, novelty numbers, and while Mezmerize has several tracks with humorous themes, the lighthearted lyrical content is backed up by more nuanced songwriting and musicianship. "Cigaro" is a raucous blast of mosh-inducing chords and tongue-in-cheek attacks on phallocentric bureaucracy ("We're the cruel regulators smoking cigaro, cigaro, cigar"), while the brilliantly titled "This Cocaine Makes Me Feel Like I'm On This Song" is a fun Zappa-goes-hardcore romp that has fun with nonsensical lines, such as, "Gonnorrhea gorgonzola." "Violent Pornography" teeters on the edge of falling into a lame, We Care a Lot-era Faith No More imitation, but is rescued by a fantastic funk metal stomp, highlighted by more dadaist gibberish ("It's a non stop disco/Bet you it's Nabisco").
Serj Tankian is one of the most gifted vocalists in hard rock today, with the ability to channel the screams of Slayer's Tom Araya, the punk caterwauling of Jello Biafra, the aggressive vocals of Slipknot's Corey Taylor, and the power metal howl of Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson (sometimes all in the same song), but on Mezmerize, his singing is much more understated. If Toxicity was Tankian's showcase, Mezmerize is Daron Malakian's coming-out party; not only does he write the bulk of the music, but his virtuosity on lead guitar is second to none. Most notably, Malakian's turns at lead vocals have been greatly increased, his upper-register cries acting as an effective foil for Tankian's more stately tenor, best displayed on "B.Y.O.B.", "Cigaro", and "Lost in Hollywood".
Many will be glad that the band appears to have shed their nu-metal shackles for good. As solid as Toxicity was, it was still firmly rooted in the tuned-down sludge of the nu-metal sound, and on the new record, Malakian's guitar tone is more akin to hardcore stalwarts Converge than, say, Slipknot and Godsmack. Also, the overall mix by Andy Wallace is much cleaner-sounding than the previous record's rather dense sound.
There is no other hard rock band around who can match the audacity, intensity, progressive nature, and accessibility of System of a Down, and with Mezmerize, they've simply topped themselves. Based on this fascinating record, the prospect of another album by this band in just a few months seems too good to be true, especially these days, when rock's biggest acts rarely live up to expectations. Hypnotize can't come soon enough.