Striking a balance between delivering a good-time rock show and a socially conscious message requires a deft touch. And when the consciousness you’re trying to raise — as System of a Down was at the sold-out Forum in L.A. — is awareness of a genocide that happened a century ago, walking that line seems like it could be particularly tough.
Not for System, though, who handled the mix of message and moshing masterfully in a more than two-hour, 33-song set.
Just before the quartet took the stage at 8:45 p.m. PT, they introduced the first video, which started with the band names and then the title, “Wake Up the Souls.” An animated clip in the style of a graphic novel with voice-over from Tom Morello, as System frontman Serj Tankian revealed later in the night, the video documented the tale of the Armenian genocide in 1915, which, the video said, “became the blueprint for modern murder.”
As the band walked onstage with the video still playing, the crowd went into a frenzy, drowning out the sound at the end of the clip. The frenzy quickly built as the foursome launched into opening number “Holy Mountains,” followed by the punk energy of “Jet Pilot.” The crowd on the floor was almost as impressive to watch, going old-school hardcore with mosh pits breaking out on both sides of the general-admission floor as well as in the center. From the rafters, all fans could see was a sea of humanity pushing forward the moment the lights went down.
Given how infrequently System hits the road, and the clamor for new music from the band’s insanely dedicated fans, that crowd was going to explode even if the group did nothing but old polka songs or a set of James Taylor covers with a ukulele. However, the band earned that fervor both musically and with their own passion.
Before the third song, “Suite Pee,” which led into “Prison,” guitarist Daron Malakian asked the crowd, “Are you ready to wake up the souls?” The answer was a resounding yes as the crowd and band kept the energy at a fever pitch during hits like “Aerials” and “BYOB.” Equally impressive though was the energy of “Cubert,” which both Malakian and Terkian pointed out the band hadn’t played in a long time.
Maybe the most pleasantly surprising aspect of the night was the band interaction. Unlike other reunited bands we’ve seen, who look like they’d rather be getting a colonoscopy than be onstage together, the four clearly enjoyed performing together, offering a glimmer of hope for those die-hards who’ve been waiting for new System music since 2005’s Mesmerize and Hypnotize. At one point, Tankian and Malakian danced arm in arm in a circle around the center of the stage.
In the decade since the group last released new music, all four members have continued to work and play with other musicians and in other styles, and it showed — sometimes as overtly as Tankian literally conducting the crowd in a sing-along, a very fun sight to see as he waved his hands and the crowd followed suit. Or sometimes it was more subtle, like once the band found its groove in the second half of the set, following a second video, they jelled into a superior combo on tracks like “Chop Suey” and “Marmalade,” or showed off their versatility on highlights like the quieter “Dreaming” and “Lonely Day.”
One of the sweetest moments of the night came late in the set as Malakian spoke about his late grandmother, who would’ve been 109 on Monday. “I want to dedicate this to one of the most influential people in my life and I miss her a lot,” he said before “Lost in Hollywood.”
Despite the fact that the whole purpose of this tour is to “wake up the souls” and raise consciousness, the band kept the talking to a minimum, though when they did speak it resonated loudly. Tankian, who explained the reasoning behind the tour to Billboard in December delivered a powerful message before “Toxicity,” one that reminded everybody why they were at this show and why it was necessary in 2015:”There is no true genocide prevention. The only people that can stop it is us.”
“Kill Rock n Roll”
“Lost in Hollywood”
“Chic ‘N’ Stu”