Few acts can trot out a Peter Jennings newsreel before a concert and have a hard-rock audience of 6,000 erupt in cheers. For fans of System Of A Down, however, a pre-show report on genocide is as fitting as a guitar solo.
It is a Sunday night in late April, and System Of A Down is staging its third hometown concert to benefit human rights and genocide awareness organizations. The group is about to embark on a world tour, and the Los Angeles crowd has gathered not to see the band off or hear a glimpse of its upcoming material. Instead, the atmosphere at the Gibson Amphitheater (formerly Universal Amphitheater) is that of a family reunion, where high schoolers and adults stand and cheer a heavy metal guitar line — or an ABC news clip from 1999 — all in the name of Armenian heritage.
Fans drape the Armenian flag over the balcony, and the mosh pit near the front of the stage is a blur of red, blue and orange as fans brandish flags in the crush. A fan in the back yells “f*** Turkey” — a remark directed at the country that perpetrated the Armenian genocide of 1915 — and the audience explodes in cheers that rival anything the band received at Ozzfest in 2002.
“This band didn’t start to change the world,” guitarist/songwriter Daron Malakian later says from the stage. “This band didn’t start to change your mind. This band started just to make you ask questions.”
System Of A Down’s ethnic appeal and political directness are not the typical qualities of today’s megastars, and that says nothing of the band’s music: a metal-laced mesh of off-the-wall rhythms and whiplash shifts in direction.
The American/Columbia act has sold nearly 6 million albums in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The group’s 2001 effort, “Toxicity,” is its most successful so far, scanning 3.5 million copies.
On May 17, System Of A Down will release the first half of its most ambitious project, a double-album that will be issued as two separate discs — “Mezmerize” and “Hypnotize” — nearly six months apart.
The first disc, “Mezmerize,” was introduced in March with first single “B.Y.O.B.,” a thrashy, Black Sabbath-inspired anti-war anthem. The song is highly critical of U.S. policy in the Middle East. (“And we don’t live in a fascist nation,” Malakian sings with far from subtle sarcasm.)
Loaded with four-letter words, it is not the obvious choice for a radio cut. Singer/songwriter Serj Tankian says the band chose the song with hesitation.
“It’s such a heavy and aggressive song, and we didn’t want a political song as our first single,” he says. “But it’s so powerful and so different from everything else on the radio, we thought we could get away with it, even though we don’t want to be pigeonholed as a political band.”
Yet Tankian can’t escape politics. As the co-founder of Axis of Justice, the activist Web site he runs with Audioslave’s Tom Morello, Tankian is the most politically active member of System Of A Down.
Mild-mannered and articulate, Tankian chooses his words with the conscientiousness of a scholar. He shows up for an interview in a suit, while Malakian slouches next to him in jeans and a T-shirt. In the words of producer Rick Rubin, Malakian is the “darker, more aggro character, and Serj is the poet.”
“The word ‘politics’ is a funny thing,” Tankian says. “A lot of people say, ‘Hey, I’m not political,’ and they don’t realize that, in today’s world, economics, politics, class struggle and social structure, are all tied together. It affects us directly, whether we like it or not, or whether we want to pay attention to it or not. Our lives are political, and System Of A Down is a band that talks about politics and has very strong points of view.”
Like all of its previous work, the act recorded the albums with Rubin, who signed the band to his American Recordings imprint in 1997. If there is a noticeable difference between “Cigaro” and past System Of A Down songs, it is that the first voice one hears is that of Malakian and not Tankian.
Tankian is still the group’s primary vocalist, and Malakian has always composed essentially all of the band’s music — coming off as hard rock’s answer to Frank Zappa. Yet “Mezmerize” and “Hypnotize” sees Malakian writing more lyrics than he has before. Malakian even splits vocal duties more evenly with Tankian and sings lead on a few cuts.
Tankian and Malakian run their own record labels, but Tankian’s Axis of Justice Web site is becoming increasingly more visible, and in 2003 he recorded an album of largely experimental instrumental music with Armenian musician Arto Tuncboyaciyan. With Malakian taking on a more active vocal role, one gets the impression that Tankian is taking a step or two back from band.
“I’m starting to compose music for films,” Tankian says, “and I don’t like being committed to one thing, whether it’s the singer of a band or one band in general. System Of A Down is part of what I do, but it’s just part of what I do. I don’t define it, nor does it define me.”
Malakian, however, notes that only those outside of the band’s inner circle will be surprised to hear him sing more. “I’ve always been vocally involved with System Of A Down, not necessarily as a singer, but I’ve written a lot of the melody lines and the vocal patterns. When I wrote something before, I had Serj in my head, but this time I had both of us in my head.”
In discussing the new albums, Malakian and Tankian always refer to them as a single project. To the band, “Mezmerize” and “Hypnotize” are one album released in two parts, with both topping off somewhere between 35 and 40 minutes.
“You don’t have a bunch of kids dropping acid like they used to,” Malakian says. “You can’t just release double albums and expect people to sit there and devote their time to it. Our songs are tough to digest, and I would feel really uncomfortable handing someone a CD with 25 songs staring them in the face.”
Following a 10-city U.S. “guerrilla tour” that began April 25, the group will head overseas to perform at European festivals, and then launch an arena tour of North America with the Mars Volta in late summer. It will be System Of A Down’s first large-scale U.S. tour since appearing on the Ozzfest bill in 2002.
Excerpted from the May 14, 2005, issue of Billboard. The full original text is available to Billboard.com subscribers.
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