Still Hypnotized By System of a Down

System of a Down (courtesy of the band)

There are tons of bands who live to entertain us, but only a handful take that proverbial Bull by the horns to lead us. System Of A Down is one of those bands. They are often referred to as System and SOAD, and their music turned their vision into reality. Formed in 1994, the Grammy-winning alt-rock/nu metal band call Glendale their home. Those not familiar with this Southern California city, its home to a very good-sized Armenian-American population.

From the beginning, System hit the ground running.  Displaying a social conscience; the guys hit the scene in June 1998 with their self-titled debut album. They enjoyed moderate success with their freshman release with songs like, “Sugar”, and “Spiders”. The songs instantly became radio favorites, and their music videos caught fire on MTV and VH-1. However, it wasn’t until 2001 with their release of Toxicity that the band literally exploded and turned into an international force. That album alone has sold over 12 million copies. Songs that exploded off that album included, “Psycho”, “Toxicity”, “Aerials” and “Chop Suey!” These songs became an anthem for kids from coast-to-coast and around the world. Since then, the guys have reached unbelievable commercial success. They’ve received 4 Grammy nods, and “B.Y.O.B. (Bring Your Own Bombs)” won for Best Hard Rock Performance in 2006 at the 48th Annual Grammy Awards.  They’ve become such an uber-band, they’ve sold over 40 million records worldwide.

As for the band’s licks, they’ve put out five studio albums that have been groundbreaking, three of which debuted at # 1 on the Billboard 200. They literally obliterated the boundaries of modern rock/metal with their bone-crushing operatic sound from day one. The debut album was a sonic treat constructed from brutal distortion and emotional vision. There’s also Toxicity (2001), Steal This Album! (2002), Mezmerize (2005) and Hypnotize (2005). In addition to the Grammy’s, they’ve been nominated for several Kerrang! (a UK-based Music Magazine devoted to rock) and MTV awards. System has been so badass, they were even featured on South Park. They’ve made appearances on SNL, Conan, and Kimmel. VH-1 even listed Toxicity in the number 14 slot in the 40 Greatest Metal Songs of all time. Other songs that move their fans include “Prison Song”, “ATWA”, “Lost In Hollywood” and “Violent Pornography”. A good number of their tunes reflect on political strife, injustice and they criticize the current state of the world, including conflicts and the tensions between countries.

Currently, the band consists of Lead singer, Serj Tankian (lead vocals/keys), there’s Daron Malakian on guitar and vocals, there’s Shavo Odadjian on bass and backing vocals and then there’s the anchor, John Dolmaya on the skins/drums. Collectively, they produce music that is not only entertaining, but it empowers. In addition to the music, their music videos are also a very powerful force and they inspire their fans. It’s another reason their fans are so cartoon crazy for them.

By any standard, these accomplishments are impressive. The question we find ourselves asking is how did System turn into the end-all, be-all of the hard rock totem pole? To answer that, you have to look into how they developed that bone-crunching sound. Reality tells us that their musical influences have a lot to do with that.  Artists that helped sculpt their sound include Ozzy Osbourne, Jello Biafra and the twisted sound of Frank Zappa. There’s also the insanity of Kiss, Fugazi, Rush, Van Halen and Slayer. Lead singer Serj Tankian has a vocal range and delivery that’s impressive and unique. At the end of the day, we can try to compare them to anyone, but this band is who they are, and they’re like nobody you’ve ever heard before. Their signature sound is unique, it’s hard to compare them to anyone else. Their lyrics are often oblique; they include topics such as drug abuse, sex, politics, war and the Armenian Genocide.  Their commitment for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide is spotlighted in two songs, “P.L.U.C.K.” and “Holy Mountains”, which rank among the band’s most political songs. It’s this commitment that connects them to their community.

System strikes balance between delivering a kick-ass show and delivering a socially conscious message. Many try to do that, but not all are successful. System does it effortlessly, and reason # 101 they are so endeared to so many of their fans. All things being equal, there are many things that make a good band great. It’s been said by many of the locals that there may be 1-2 degrees of separation between most Armenians living in Los Angeles. For that reason, they all feel the connection and support each other. For those who don’t have an Armenian background, the band’s lyrics about politics, in general, have drawn support worldwide. Its themes have no borders, and their quest to be treated equally has roots that go back far beyond today’s headlines on social media.

There is one blemish to their legendary story, but is it really a blemish? Back in 2001, the band was putting on a FREE Labor Day show as a “THANK YOU” to their L.A. fans. The day ended in mayhem as a result of the show being called off. The local Police and Fire officials called off the show because of the size of the crowd; it was estimated at 7,000 people, only half of that was expected. The event was not too dissimilar from an event that took place with new wave icons, Depeche Mode. Because of the way the cancelation was handled, the crowd wreaked havoc on the streets of Hollywood. The band fought to have the show go forward, they offered to play a much-much shorter set, or, to have Tankian make an announcement that the show was being called off. The decision was made by the powers that be to cancel the show without Tankian making an announcement. To this day, there’s still no real explanation as to why this went down the way it did. Suffice it to say, it was something that didn’t have to happen, especially if it was handled a little differently. Because of decisions made by others, it’s hard to pin this one on the band. The highly publicized event did do one thing… it illustrated just how vested fans were in this band. Although this was not the way this was meant to happen, it was the beginning of a story about the life and times of rock legends.

Despite all the accolades and support, the band has taken extended breaks. During that time, band members have engaged in side projects. Recently, reports that Tankian was done with music is a bit of an exaggeration. The rumor floating out there for about a minute was that he’s interested only in instrumental music and scores for his film projects.  That turned out not to be true; yes, he is working film projects, but a comment he made regarding vocals on one of his projects was taken out of context. Luckily for Serj fans, he is working on some pretty cool film projects. The documentary film, Intent to Destroy, explores how for more than a century the Turkish government has denied that the Armenian Genocide ever took place. Then, there’s the Russian-language film, Furious. That’s an action film; he’s also worked Spitak. That’s another Russian-Armenian co-production about the Armenian earthquake of 1988. Of that film, Tankian says it’s a very heavy and emotional film. Tankian has also worked on several other projects over the years. His solo album, Elect the Dead, produced a hit for him with a song called “Empty Walls”.  

Circling back to what’s next for System. For fans who have been waiting over a decade for System to make new music, it’s unclear as to what’s next musically speaking.  Ask any of their fans and they’ll say “Possibly, maybe, I don’t know, maybe they’ll surprise us if, or when, they’ll put out new tunes”. Sometimes fans hear one thing. Like in a November 2016 interview, drummer, John Dolmayan, let the cat out of the bag that System was working on new tunes. Back then, there was no release date on a new album. Since then, the word is that the thought of a new album has been walked back. Obviously, there’s a ton of pressure on the band to put out new music, but in traditionally System fashion, they’re not going to put out anything because they’re under pressure to do it.

Therein lies the conflict for their fans. Do they get excited that new tunes are possible, or do they take a more measured approach until it’s official? For now, the best approach appears to be the approach most are taking–wait and see. One thing is certain, their fans are excited that the band has a tour in their future. Recently, System announced their first tour in over three years. They have a few west coast dates, you can catch them on October 13th at Glen Helen Amphitheatre in San Bernardino, and then on October 17 at Valley View Casino Center in San Diego.