Review Summary: The album retains the quirkiness System is famous for, but unfortunately it’s the only thing retained by this point.
Regardless if you find System of a Down a wonderfully quirky and genius metal band or a terribly annoying and over-political band, it is a fact that they are different from their popular metal peers. When the debut album System of a Down
hit the shelves in 1998, the public hadn’t seen anything like it; it was metal with all kinds of goofy twists and turns. In addition, System have been notorious throughout their career for explicitly political lyrics, emotional commentary on the Armenian Genocide and the always eccentric vocal delivery of Serj Tankian. The System tradition was continued with the more commercial friendly Toxicity
and its B-sides counterpart Steal This Album!
, and it was by this point most fans considered the band to be out of their prime; the ideas they presented with the first two albums seemed to be all there was to System of a Down. Now, the next two-album opus Mezmerize
was undeniably System of a Down, but by this point, we had seen it all before, and while the albums were quirky and catchy, they simply did not bring anything new to the table since the band had already gone through the inventive stage of their career: the beginning of it. So, is the later System of a Down really that bad, and are there any redeeming qualities about this phase at all?
The answers to those questions are, it depends, and yes. While Mezmerize
featured guitarist Daron Malakian in his first prominent vocal and songwriting role as well as the birth of the new System, Hypnotize
takes these things a step further and presents us with a band with a new identity, almost completely separate from the band that created the old albums. However, in a sense, this is very much the same band, because when you listen to this album, it’s very obvious who you’re listening to, as the qualities of System that make them so identifiable are still here: chunky and down-tuned riffs, political messages and quirky idiosyncracies such as circus-like riffs and high pitched vocals peppered everywhere. In other words, ever since Daron contributed so much to vocals and songwriting, the band sounds so much different. They still sound like System of a Down, just a different version. Unfortunately, this version is much blander and uninspired than one would expect from the minds that brought us System of a Down
Earlier I said the answer to if the new System is really as bad as most fans make it out to be depends, and this is what it depends on: the songs. Most of the songs on Mezmerize
were still similar enough to the old System that most fans disgruntled with the new sound were able to like them easily. There were some exceptions, like “This Cocaine Makes Me Feel Like I’m On This Song” and “Old School Hollywood”, that seemed to rely only on the fact that they were quirky to qualify as a song good enough to make the final cut on a System album. Hypnotize
is chuck full of songs like this. Almost every song here is just an exaggeration of an old System song; they’re more quirky, there’s more obnoxious vocal interplay and the heavy yet catchy down-tuned riffing is even more prominent. It seems that the band has run out of ideas by this point because they’re just doing what they always do but it in a less effective way. What I mean by this is on the first two albums, they would construct a song that had a conventional foundation, but implemented trademark System elements at the right times to make for a fun (but solid) metal song. On this album, it seems to be the other way around; the foundation of the majority of the songs on Hypnotize
is silliness and eccentricity instead of concrete songwriting and there seems to be only a few places that logic was thrown into the mix. An example of this is “Holy Mountains”, probably the best song on the album. To be completely honest, a big part of why this song stands out in comparison to the others on the album is it’s a safe song for System; it follows a familiar pattern for the band, and it doesn’t get too close to the craziness and randomness of the other songs. Even though System are known for having crazy and somewhat random songs, the ideas that the band has always used in them get beaten to death on this album, making for an obnoxious and annoying experience more than anything.
Then there’s the issue of Daron’s voice. Many people hate it, but even if everyone loved it, it doesn’t get used properly on the later albums, this one in particular. Many have come to accept that Serj Tankian is the voice of System of a Down since it’s the voice that fronted the band at its inception and early years. During those early stages in their career, Daron would occasionally contribute a yell or even a few lines, such as the bridge of “Needles” off Toxicity
, and it worked. It worked because it was a break from Tankian’s squeaky and bouncy delivery, and it gave a good deal of balance to their songs. It does not work on this album because since he sings probably as much, if not more than Serj, any good thing about his otherwise very whiny and nasally voice overstays it welcome and there’s a good chance you’ll start to resent it before the album ends. It’s not really Daron’s voice itself that’s unattractive; what makes it unbearable, even if you like it, is how obvious it is that Daron’s taken over the band by this point. Even if his songwriting was great (which it isn’t), even if he had a great voice (which most say he doesn’t), even if his riffs were good (which they actually are most of the time), it’s hard to like his contribution on this album simply because it’s hard not to assume his ego has gotten the best of him and his band. It’s because of this that his contribution on Hypnotize
seems more overbearing than anything else.
I also asked if there were any redeeming qualities of the new System, and that answer was yes; this album is catchy as hell. It’s still fun, it’s still wonderfully unique, it’s still System of a Down. And, every once in a while, Serj still sings! His voice has always fit perfectly with System’s music, and that’s no exception here. Unfortunately, the list of positives ends there.
So what exactly went wrong with System and when did it happen? Given the very obvious change in roles with the band members after Steal This Album!
and the seemingly complete absence of new ideas that accompanied this change, Mezmerize
was probably the first obvious sign that System of a Down had lost their flair. When someone runs out of ideas, they usually resort back to their ideas that have worked in the past. This is what the band tried to do with their newer albums, but on Hypnotize
in particular, all the ideas the band had that worked in the past do not work in this context because there’s hardly anything else to support them; while there’s plenty of quirky moments, there are no memorable passages, no epic moments, no passionate vocal deliveries, or worst of all, no good songwriting. That’s a bit of an overstatement, but if any of those things are present on Hypnotize
, they’re few and far between great amounts of awful song structure and obnoxious vocals. At some point, the members of System of a Down must realize that the originality found in their quirky sound dissolves when it’s been done before, in this case by themselves.