Saturday, February 23, 2013

System of a Down: Toxicity

Even a casual glance at this blog should make it clear that easy labels to identify music are not part and parcel of what's on offer here.  So, when it comes to a band like System of a Down, the easy labeling of it as "Nu Metal" has no currency so far as this blogger is concerned.  Endless comparisons to Korn or Limp Bizkit or whether SOAD has any comparable elements to other metal genres don't register.  System of a Down is a great band on its own merits.

And, Toxicity is the embodiment of the disparate elements that make System a great listening experience.  The deliciously crunchy riffs from guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Daron Malakian; the sturdy and deft support of bassist Shavo Odadjian and drummer John Dolmayan; the unique vocalizations from lead singer Serj Tankian; the interesting and memorable lyrics, melodies and harmonies between Tankian and Malakian; the silliness and the heaviness; the racing tempos and the delicate acoustic moments; and even the Armenian-inflected endtro after the closer "Aerials"—the sheer diversity, precision, politicized commentary, and the power of presentation makes Toxicity a truly great record.

It's not hard to find plenty of information about this Los Angeles-based band of Armenian-Americans, whose 1998 self-titled debut is a pretty great record that was largely overlooked.  Three years later, though, that all changed with this album, which moves seamlessly with well-placed sequencing and has an excellent sound thanks to noted producer Rick Rubin, whose American Recordings label released this album.

Toxicity roars through its first several tunes, including "Prison Song," which critiques the subject with a pretty typical no-holds-barred approach lyrically and musically; "Needles;" "Deer Dance;
 "Jet Pilot;" and the short, but explosive "X."  The song that grabbed most of the attention, "Chop Suey!" employs a lot of the abrupt tempo and rhythmic changes, movements from powerful speedy runs to contemplative interludes, and lyric matter about suicide that still seemed shocking to some people over a decade ago.

It's been suggested that whatever controversies came out regarding "Chop Suey!" were partly dictated by the difficult circumstances surrounding the terrorist attacks on the U.S. on 11 September 2001 and this album was released just a week prior.

If the rest of the album doesn't quite have the seamlessness of the first several tunes, it's more a testament to how great those pieces are rather than a lack of quality for the remainder.  "Bounce" is a silly, but needed, break from the head-pounding (and heart-pounding) intensity and seriousness of what comes before and it is a little surprising that some commentators really think it is about using a pogo stick at a party!

"Forest" is actually one of the great songs on this record, too, and has another of many great Malakian rhythms and a memorable chorus.  The latter is true for "Atwa," which balances a more ballad-like approach with some head-banging intensity accompanying its lines "You don't care about how I feel/I don't feel it anymore."  "Science" decries the reliance on the title subject and promotes spirituality (which Focus on the Family, believe it or not, pointed out was a contrast [well, hypocritical in their view, if anyone really cares who listens to SOAD, anyway!] to its overt sexual metaphors in "Bounce."

"Toxicity" has strong lyrics from Tankian and starts off with a mellower frame of mind with an excellent instrumental arrangement from Malakian and Odadjian before the pummeling "Psycho" roars through with its references to groupies and "cocaine crazy."  One could only imagine who doesn't know that world!  And, "Aerials" ends the album nicely, especially with that fascinating Armenian folk portion that doesn't have anything in the credits as to instrumentation and who plays what.  As a long-time lover of music from around the world (easily noted in this blog) and, specifically of the late Armenian duduk legend Djivan Gasparayan, I was really impressed by their inclusion of this "hidden" piece at the end of a fantastic album.

System of a Down went on to issue three more albums, including the surprisingly excellent "outtakes" album, Steal This Album! and the complementary Mezmerize and Hypnotize, which both were released in 2005.  A hiatus ensued that has only been interrupted by occasional live performances that include some in Europe this summer.  Whether or not further albums are coming, the group has a short, but impressive, catalog of excellent albums. 

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