Upon the Ottoman Empire’s entry into World War One, it reversed a centuries-old policy of tolerating Armenian conscientious objection to military service. The result was the forced conscription of the majority of Armenian men, most of whom were literally dragged from their homes. The total Armenian population was roughly two million at the time. Many of these men were executed for resistance and desertion, while others met their end in combat. A large portion of the remaining Armenians in Anatolia, mainly women and children, as well as those who’d had enough money to avoid military service, were forcibly relocated to Syria and Mesopatamia (Modern Iraq).
They had to advance to their new homes on foot. They were led through the desert by the army, with no food and drink other than those they had brought, and no protection from looters and rapists. It’s believed a lot of soldiers also took part. Camps were set up by the government on the borders wherein many Armenians could die in some degree of comfort. There are unconfirmed reports of Armenians being killed by morphine injection and even reports of mass burnings and gassing. The “Special Organization,” an intra-governmental military company, is attributed with tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of deaths through legal and extra-legal means.
Estimates as to the total death toll are as high as 1.5 million, though most agree on a minimum of at least one million. The resulting Diaspora mimics that of European Jews after the Second World War War. Armenians spread the world over, through free Europe, the Soviet Union, Asia, Israel and America. Each year, on April 24th, the worldwide community of Armenians and interested parties honour the dead and continue the fight to have the event recognised by the Turkish government and to spread awareness. The Turkish Government, though it no longer resembles the empire of old, refuses to recognise the event as genocide, instead attributing the deaths to civil war, rebellion, disease and famine, and any other manner of coincidence.
Fast forward 87 years, and the world is an entirely different place. A major election has taken place. The votes have been counted, the figures are in, and it’s official: vaguely political rock is in
. Hollywood rockers System of a Down, along with cohorts Green Day and Audioslave, have made as big a name for themselves through their vocal political stance as they have through top 10 albums and singles. While Green Day’s political posturing rarely pervades their music, and Audioslave have taken a consciously less political form to the instrumental section’s previous incarnation, System of a Down’s music is ultimately inseparable from their politics.
This is clearly evident with even a casual glance at their influences : The Clash, the first focused political punk band; Rage Against The Machine; Public Enemy. Vocalist and (now) multi-instrumentalist Serj Tankian admits: “My influences are political. I used to listen to revolutionary music before any other type of music.”
Rounding these off are the more immediately apparent influences: early 90s alternative rock bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane’s Addiction and Faith No More (Mike Patton’s influence has become far more noticeable with the recent double-release); 80s thrash giants Metallica and Slayer. As of late, they’ve consciously incorporated elements of Armenian and eastern European folk into their ever-changing style, as well as contemporaries The Mars Volta. Then, they were classified as a nu-metal band, as their heavy, innovatively rhythmic sound and aggressive vocals struck a chord with that audience. Today, they are touted as one of the leaders of a new generation of progressive metal. Perhaps this is a fair assessment.
It seems that System of a Down have always been determined to use their status to make people aware of their political views, and in many ways the shoe fits. The foursome are all Americans of Armenian descent, three of whom were born in the Middle East (Daron is from Hollywood). They grew up with survivors (and descendants thereof) of the great Genocide of Ottoman Armenians during the First World War. The quartet’s commitment to remembering and seeking recognition outspans their association as a band. Their second album, Toxicity
was released the week of the attacks before the World Trade Centres in 2001 and topped the charts that week. As Middle Eastern (though Christians) figures in America at the time, they’d not have been blamed for reducing the volume somewhat, but they instead chose to turn the amps up. They could be said to be the heirs to the throne of rap-metal political idiots Rage Against The Machine. Then again, it could be said there’s a great deal more to System of a Down than one-trick ponies Rage. There’s even an inverted American flag in the booklet!
Never a band to rush art, System of a Down’s third studio album, Mezmerize
(of which Hypnotize
is the companion), came a full three and a half years after its predecessor, Toxicity
. For a band looking to capitalise on mainstream success, taking three years out to record a double album to be released over a six-month period seems like an odd choice. System of a Down are an odd band. They make odd music. By 2005, the nu-metal bubble had burst, which wasn’t an odd thing at all. Yet System of a Down became more popular than ever with the release of the single ‘B.Y.O.B.,’ leading the first instalment of the two-piece. So, we’re back to odd again. Mezmerize
was an unorthodox album by any standards. It was an anomaly by pop standards. Such mainstream success hadn’t greeted such an “alternative” band since Faith No More released Epic
in 1989. The album itself was more of the same. ‘Cigaro’ bore most resemblance to what had come before, a manic anthem which encompassed co
ck -worship and more co
ck-worship. In ‘B.Y.O.B.,’ the band jumped time signatures faster than the president-bound bile left their mouths. ‘Lost In Hollywood’ and ‘Radio/Video’ showed a lighter, more tender side to Daron’s songwriting, the latter reading like a Mr. Bungle track, an apparent tribute to childhood friends of his. Three years have clearly seen the band alter their sound significantly without, hopefully, losing what made them loved in the first place.
’s success seems to vindicate their decision to broaden their outlook, however the album has its critics. Appearances on MTV and its ilk has prompted some to label them sell-outs, while others attacked a perceived fall-off in quality of songwriting and musicianship. Some felt the band had lost their heavy edge of old. Hypnotize
is, essentially, the other half of Mezmerize
. We’re left in no doubt of the fact with opening track ‘Attack’, which essentially rehashes the guitar riffs in ‘B.Y.O.B.’ and ‘Sad Statue,’ re-casting the directed anti-government angst of the former. It has all the hallmarks of that track as well; a thrashy riff, Serj’s clear, virulent vocal and the barely-concealed lyrics. Hypnotize
truly picks up where Mezmerize
Onward Christian soldier to the next track, the wistfully entitled ‘Dreaming’, though it is anything but. Furious choreographed rhythmic riffing and drumming betray the band’s thrash roots as Serj does what he does best, deliver a multitude of unconnected, polysyllabic words-as-daggers in what is easily the best lyric on the album. Serj, incidentally, deserves extra credit for making the phrase [i]”you went beyond” sound like “you left the iron on.” Knowing the truth, the song is cast in an entirely different light.
‘Tentative’ further illustrates System’s political paranoia, delivered with eloquence by way of dirty guitars and aggressive, half-rapped dual vocals. The song is once again quite strong lyrically, with a few controversial but nonetheless effective lines, such as the opening phrase: “Superstition taking all of us for a ride/Mines overtaken by the signs of the Right.” ‘Stealing Society’ and ‘U-Fig’, conversely, are lyrical black holes. The former is lazy lyrically and lazy musically and barely worthy of the cutting room floor. The latter more than makes up for it, being as it is a contender for my favourite track on the album. After a brief, folky guitar intro, the track explodes with a vicious guitar riff and Serj baying for blood, directing his malice toward “pathetic flag waving ignorant geeks,” right before he declares his desire to cannibalise them. See what I mean about baying for blood? The refrain of “beat ‘em beat ‘em beat ‘em beat ‘em” involves Serj flipping his lip up and down really quickly. A child-like innovation.
Two tracks from Hypnotize
were leaked in the lead-up to the release of Mezmerize
: ‘Kill Rock N’ Roll’ and ‘Holy Mountains.’ They divided fans and critics at the time, and nothing has changed. ‘Kill Rock N’ Roll’ is the album’s first less-than-serious song. Well, it might be serious, but it’s pretty much gibberish to me: “So I felt like the biggest a
sshole/When I killed your rock n’ roll.” Musically and lyrically, it recalls ‘Toxicity’: a hard-hitting verse perfectly juxtaposed with a beautiful double guitar melody and Serj’s off-key wailing. The latter track again begins like a track from Toxicity
a song inspired by that Armenian Genocide the band is so moved to recall. One of the more harrowing lines from the song simply says: “Can you feel their haunting presence: Liar, Killer, Demon/Back to the River Aras.” This is System of a Down at their most poignant. The title track and first single, ‘Hypnotize’ is a rather tame effort from which both semi-albums’ titles are derived. The track, despite its flaws, is the best example of dual-vocal interplay on the album.
The mood is quickly altered by ‘Vicinity of Obscenity’, a System track of old. It’s the only lyric on the album solely written by Tankian, and it shows. No less than twenty lines in the song contain the phrase “terracotta pie.” He also mentions bananas and “beating the meat.” Must be an Armenian thing. Musically, the track sits comfortably between Mr. Bungle and Isaac Hayes. This is one for the people who like to shout meaningless phrases. Communists should love it. ‘She’s Like Heroin’ and ‘Lonely Day’. I classify the latter as a joke song, because there’s no way Daron could write such terrible lyrics in earnest. ‘She’s Like Heroin’ has a bizarre, Alice In Wonderland quality, which in real terms resembles an acid trip in Victorian English high society. Except it’s about a girl who sells her as
s for heroin. Go figure.
It’s symptomatic of the band, the album and its other half that they shouldn’t rest on an emotion. One second they’re angry, the next mournful, the next scornful, the next happy and silly. There’s a sense, even, the band is afraid of being pigeon-holed. Regarded as merely a political band, or a joke band, or however else one could define System of a Down. Or perhaps they’re just slightly insane. They certainly look it. As such, I’m not sure whether I love or hate that aspect of the album. It’s certainly “schizophrenic,” to use a term every reviewer of SOAD has used to refer to the band to date. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is really up the air, it’s either genius or stupidity and there’s a fine line of interpretation. One thing this album is, is honest. There’s no sense of “Tell us what you really feel
, Daron.” It’s honest, it’s thorough, it’s passionate, it’s competent, it’s definitely challenging and for eleven tracks, we get just that. And we need more of that in music today.
And so we are left, deliberately, with the closer, ‘Soldier Side’. It was briefly premiered as a introduction to Mezmerize
, albeit in a slightly altered and abridged form. That System use it to open and close the collection is an obvious indication that the track holds some overall significance, though the needn’t have been so instructive. It’s an anti-war song, specific and unspecific. Lyrically, it beats everything else on the album, and with ease. At ease, even. It’s epic despite its duration; soulful despite its brashness; beautiful despite its underlying anger. It’s a tale of young men, sent to war with foolish hope of return. All young men must go. It’s a tale of mothers, of families, watching their child leave to no hope of return. All young men must go. God is wearing black. All young men must go.