“Following the rights movements, you clamped down with your iron fists. Drugs became conveniently available for all the kids” Prison Song, System of a Down, Toxicity, 2001.
These lyrics from the latter end of 2001 sound like they could have been written in the past week. How about another.
“Circumventing circuses lamenting in protest. To visible police, presence-sponsored fear. Battalions of riot police with rubber bullet kisses. Baton courtesy, service with a smile.” Deer Dance, System of a Down, Toxicity, 2001.
I think these words are actually more relevant.
Both of these excerpts are taken from Toxicity, the incredible sophomore album released by the Armenian alternative metal band – System of a Down. The record itself is now a staggering 19 years old. Yet, this album could have been released yesterday and wouldn’t feel outdated. The album, released a week before the 9/11 terror attacks took place, summarised the screams of a rising left-wing movement in the United States. One that protested the war on drugs, police brutality and prison overcrowding – as well as other artifacts of Americana.
The aforementioned 9/11 incident, as tragic and harrowing as it was, arguably further opened the doorway for an increased expansion of right-wing nationalism, mass deportation of citizens and large-scale surveillance of its people. The true extent of the latter only becoming apparent after Edward Snowdon’s NSA leaks back in 2013.
With Donald Trump at the helm, the United States looks more fractured than ever. The current Black Lives Matter protests are the latest in a long line of incidents that seem to be tearing the country apart at the seams. With the 2020 preliminaries on the horizon, the political spectrum for the candidates makes for grim reading for anybody leaning to the left in politics.
System of a Down, along with other contemporaries of the protest-rock genre such as Rage Against the Machine and Rise Against, managed chart success despite their incendiary sound. System went a step further with their unorthodox blend of Armenian folk, metal, jazz, and Greek influences. Songs such as the international smash-hit ‘Chop Suey!’ (aptly named after their record label had told them to ‘chop’ the original name of the track ‘Suicide’), ‘BYOB’ and ‘Aerials’ are common tracks on any Gen X or Millennial iPod. In a world that boasts a wide variety of rap and dance tracks, there is prime real estate for heavier music in the charts. It needs to be loud, and it needs to encapsulate the feelings of the disassociated youth – just as it did all those years ago.
It has been 15 years since the release of the ‘Mezmerize’ and ‘Hypnotize’ double release, two albums that, according to guitarist Daron Malakian, nearly ended up dead in the water before they had even begun. He told Kerrang Magazine:
“To be honest with you, Serj didn’t even want to make [them]. We really begged him to make those records. At that time, he felt like he was out.”
I had the pleasure of seeing System of a Down headlining at Download Festival Paris back in 2017. Although I enjoyed the set, I failed to shake the feeling that it was a fleeting cash-grab from one of the most revolutionary bands of the modern era. The passion in their performance seemingly gone, it was an extravagant act of going through the same material they had then been performing for over a decade.
Nowadays the band are unable to agree on anything – never mind politics. Just last week Serj Tankian posted on Instagram, “Run Donny, run back to your bunker”, after the POTUS had entered the White House safehouse and turned off all the lights, as protests raged on outside. In stark contrast to his opinions, drummer Jon Dolmayan labelled the same man as “the greatest friend to minorities”.
The drummer said in a recent Instagram video:
“We have differing opinions in System of a Down. That shouldn’t be a shock to anybody, because you have four individuals: we’re not always like-minded and don’t always agree on everything. But you’d be surprised at how civil our conversations are, especially between me and Serj, who seem to have the most diverging opinions on things.”
I for one would absolutely love to hear an album forged from the melting pot of opposing forces in politics, as I am sure many others would too. According to bassist Shavo Odidjian, he would have had 10 System of a Down albums released by now if it was up to him. He even told Consequence of Sound that the material that they had pre-written was some of the best they had ever recorded.
Stephen Hill at Loudersound sums it up perfectly when he writes: “This long without an album for a band that are meant to actually stand for something is embarrassing.”
All four of the band members are highly active on social media, but they did not rise to prominence as Instagram influencers. They fought against what they perceived as an unjust system with their own brand of metal. The world needs a new System of a Down album more than ever, but if they fail to answer the call now, when the United States is literally on its knees – will they ever? Perhaps we are just cursed for a lifetime of festival headline sets, where they slowly but surely squeeze every drop of monetary gain from the songs that roared them into limelight in the first place.
I’ll end this article with some words of wisdom from Serj Tankian himself.
“Banana, banana, banana, terracotta. Banana terracotta, terracotta pie. Banana, banana, banana, terracotta. Banana terracotta, terracotta pie” Vicinity of Obscenity, System of a Down, Hypnotize, 2005.
Looking into those lyrics actually makes them all the more intriguing, but I think that’s the point as the song is Serj’s take on Dadaism. In all seriousness I adore System of a Down and their classics, I just want to hear what Serj, Daron, Shavo and Jon have got to say about the last 15 years outside of 280 characters.