Review Summary: Lighter But Still Rocking
System of a Down - Steal This Album
It's arguable that all too many bands these days are resistant to change. Too many musicians copy others, refuse to evolve or experiment, or simply worry too much about changing their sound, lest they lose their fans.
Few bands take the other route. I'm afraid the California-based metal band System of a Down may have given the fans more than they deserve with this, their third record, boldly-titled Steal This Album.
The presentation of this album is pure System - the packaging is deliberately sparse. The disc itself is designed like a burned CD; the name of the album and band are printed on the face of the disc, marker-like. Ironically, only the copyright information printed in tiny letters along the bottom gives it away - this is indeed a complete commercial release.
First, a word of warning: Steal This Album is essentially a B-Sides record. All of the songs on the album are leftovers from System's previous recording sessions (mainly the Toxicity sessions). There's a lot of controversy about this record, so I won't make any definitive statement about its relative quality to System's previous releases (2001's excellent Toxicity and System's awe-inspiring 1999 self-titled debut). Having said that, "Steal This Album" isn't necessarily worse than System's previous releases - just. . . different. Whether you like this kind of "different" or not depends on your point of view.
The differences in this record are dramatic - as I said in my Toxicity review, System is backing away from their death- and thrash-metal-inspired roots, most likely in an attempt to find their sound. The guitar melodies are much cleaner and crisper, vocal harmonies play a much larger part (due mainly to the increased vocal role of lead guitarist Daron Malakian, a role which will be increased even farther for System�s upcoming 2005 dual releases), and the lyrics are much sillier and metaphorical.
All of these contribute to Steal This Album's softer sound. The level of the guitar work has increased dramatically - intricate guitar work and creative uses of unique instruments replace bone-shattering riffs and roaring vocals. All of this serves to prove that System of a Down is a versatile band - frontman and lead vocalist Serj Tankian excels at singing soft ballads (like this album's "Roulette"), checking his death metal roars and animal-like trills and shrieks at the door.
Overall, this album is still an immensely-positive experience, for die-hard System fans and cautious listeners alike. It's a nice feeling when even a band's B-Sides manage to stand above many of the best "leading brand" records.
Before I begin the track listings, a little history: this album was essentially released as a consequence of a large-scale leak at the Columbia studios. Unfinished versions of all of these songs (from the "Toxicity" sessions) were leaked onto the Internet, resulting in a general crisis for the band. Unable to bear the idea of having fans hear these "unfinished" songs (most of which sound essentially the same as the songs on the record - just a little unpolished), System went back into the studio and released this follow-up record as a quickie. So, filesharers: buy the album; they went through a lot of trouble for it.
One more word: this album grows on you. While System's previous releases blew me away at the first listen, Steal This Album slowly endears itself to you. If you don't love it at first, keep listening.
Chic 'n Stu:
Less metal and more grunge than the awesome opening tracks of previous SOAD albums, this political song doesn't take itself seriously enough to be taken seriously. Lyrics flow like pizza toppings (and many of them are), but the song is neat in its own way. Don't expect a barnburner and you'll be pleasantly surprised.
A repeating single-note riff sets the stage for the album's first single. The song is neat but holds back too much until the very end where it really explodes.
Solid all around. Spooky and melodic with a great chorus and interlude. The lyrics are too silly.
Probably one of the best songs on the album, "Boom!" is a vey powerful song with aggressive political lyrics (less pointed but more poetic than another very political song on the record, "American Dream Denial"). The first verse is fantastic. The second verse is a little too punk. A great chorus rounds out the song. The ever-rotund Michael Moore directed the music video.
This song is silly as well, but top-notch musically. The guitar solo is amazing and nearly edges out "Science" for best SOAD interlude. This is a favorite of mine.
A.D.D. (American Dream Denial):
Man, this track really grew on me. Great musical transitions and a blistering, Rage-Against-the-Machine-style chorus stand this one out. Serj's haunting vocals help the verse-chorus interplay.
Ahh, here we are. "Mr. Jack", considered by many to be the best song on the album. Equal parts political, nonsensical and angry, "Mr. Jack" features nearly perfect progression, turning hard exactly when it needs to and not a second earlier. Excellent build to a roaring finale.
A sort of metal anthem to the bizarre and nonsensical. Read the lyrics online to see what I mean. The chorus is awesome.
What kind of a band would record a forty-five second song and make it the heaviest on the album? It's not bad, but it's more of a bridge to the next track than anything.
This is my favorite "hard" song on the record. "Pictures" is quite similar to "War" in its delivery - alternating between vocals and music - but falls short in its lasting meaning. It's a great song to sing along to and tighter than most songs on the record.
A great, melodious track (and another fan favorite). The interlude reminds me of those dance-salsa music exercise tapes middle-aged women listen to in misguided attempts to lose weight. Another song showing System's versatility, "Highway Song" has a suitably epic feel.
F**k the System:
Just when you think System can't get any weirder, they do. The vocals in this song are completely Serj; random trills, incomprehensible lyrics, and the chorus, the lone intelligible portion of the track ("F**k the System!") make the song pure fun. Daron Malakian said that the words are stupid on purpose: "We're trying to say - you can't just sing about f***ing the system; you just have to go out and do it." Thanks for the clarification, Daron.
Great, fantastic song. Probably better than anything Puddle of Mudd or The Used have written in their entire careers. Maybe I'm over-exaggerating (no chance), but "Ego Brain" is one of the best songs on the album. This song, "Mr. Jack" and "Roulette" really help to flesh out the softer side of System (or at least the side of System that isn't screaming �WHY THE **** DID YOU TAKE IT AWAY FROM US, YOU MUTHA**KA!?!�). Too much comedy, not enough review. Somebody slap me.
A pretty great song, with a fantastic, epic chorus. I'm not sure what it's about (reading between the lines, I'd say governmental propaganda), but it's still a good little number. It's a B-Side; lay off. Cool solo though.
And here's the famous "Roulette", probably the best made-for-acoustic song I've ever heard, and it's by a thrash metal band! Is the world ending? Will we be forced to buy umbrellas to guard against the impending waves of flying pigs and hellfire raining from the skies? No. Just enjoy the song. It's just a great, simple song - actually written by Daron Malakian years ago. Then learn it on the guitar.
A great ending piece for the album. Originally off of the "Scorpion King" soundtrack, it's got a time signature more fit for Soundgarden than SOAD. A highly enjoyable end to a great album.
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