Review Summary: Easily the band's best output, showcasing all the positive qualities of their sound next to each other in perfect harmony.
It's ironic how one of the most beloved bands of the 2000's was also one of the most groundbreaking and innovative; for a time, at least. System Of A Down were on quite a hot streak from 1997 to 2004, starting out playing unsettling, bone-crushing and shapeshifting metal that aimlessly wandered from one distorted motif or frightening lull to another. As their sound quickly grew to become more commercial, System held fast to their established sound while mixing with more digestible techniques. As the band grew exponentially, playing massive tours to innumerable amounts of fans and becoming the face of heavy music in the 2000's, their temporary disbandment both shocked and confused audiences and consumers. However, the hiatus was well-needed after the highly volatile and inconsistent grab-bag that was Mezmerize/Hypnotize. However, System was not always the metal industry's cash cow, nor were they always the band that people could listen to in order to be 'weird' and remain mainstream at the same time. No, there was a time when System Of A Down's music meant far more than it does now, and their self-titled album is the pinnacle of this. Quite frankly, "System Of A Down" is one of the greatest metal albums ever released.
Over the years, System gradually became more technical and impressive; "B.Y.O.B." and "Question!" from the Mezmerize album both contain jaw-dropping examples of musicianship from all band members, while they also slowly shifted into a more guitar-focused thrash/traditional heavy metal hybrid, rather than the more musically balanced quasi-thrash group they were in the late '90s. Despite what you may think, the more technical outputs in the later end of their discography make them seem less like a band and more like a bunch of eager, wanky session musicians, in a manner similar to Dream Theater and The Mars Volta, although it's far less noticeable. As far as general songwriting went, System's self-titled record was easily the most focused they ever were. Every band member gets a slice of the pie, and the rhythm section is showcased more here than on their following records put together. Whereas drummer John Dolmayan was mostly restricted to fast, punkish attacks or fast-paced timekeeping on the band's following two releases, on here he has chances to shine, such as on the chameleon-esque time shifts of "Soil" or the balls-out insanity he offers on "Know". He also plays with more blunt force and emotion, and he never seemed more into it than he was on here. Bassist Shavo Odadjian is given an ample share of the spotlight as well, before he was basically thrust out of the band, only to be heard sporadically on their later releases. His rollicking licks on "Ddevil" shows an undeniable sense of rhythm and a pulse that is difficult to fight, while his dark bass lines drive the more emotive, cathartic tracks like "Mind" or the maddening singles, "Sugar" and "Spiders".
But the rhythm section isn't all that makes this their best effort. Guitarist Daron Malakian had not yet initiated his creative strange hold on the band's output, instead opting to let the band work as a single unit and thus making this feel like a more fluid and relaxed effort, rather than the forced feeling that some of their later work had. The band's following albums were characterized by a frantic, riff-oriented songwriting style, bathed in low distortion to give it the extra-chaotic feel. On "System Of A Down" however, the chaos flows naturally as the band's songwriting was at a creative peak. Malakian truly understood the value of space on this record, creating a masterful riff out of just two notes on "Sugar" and letting the bass carry "Mind" while injecting a truly bone-chilling lead into the center. Granted, both songs eventually devolve into filthy riff-fests, but the way the songs progress make this change open and welcome. Daron's guitar work is also far more unique than it was on future releases. He can create heavy leads by utilizing only a single string ("CUBErt"), play groovy, well-paced interludes ("War?") and often opts to suddenly change time or kick into high gear unexpectedly ("Soil", "Know"). His vocals also appear rarely throughout the record, which is great considering the increase in his vocal contributions only kicked Serj out of the picture, and he is easily the best part of the band. In fact, sometimes the only reason I listen to System is to hear his vocals. On the s/t, the only times I can recall hearing Daron's vocals are in the background of "Suite-Pee" and "P.L.U.C.K.".
Speaking of Serj, he was partaking in business as usual here. Sure, Toxicity is easily the best he's ever sounded, but this easily contains his most varied and unique vocals ever put to record. Serj has never gotten as frightening as he did on "Sugar". Serj has never been as volatile as he is on "Mind". Serj has never been more dead serious than he is on "Spiders", "Soil", "War?" and "P.L.U.C.K.". "Ddevil" and "Suggestions", and perhaps "Darts" showcase the flip side of this, where he's still the same metaphorical genius wrapped in an enigma of jarring, high-pitched semi-rapping and fun, bouncy, natural singing. This is also the only System record to contain full-on death growling, and Serj does it like a pro. After the operatic madness during the first minute of "Suite-Pee", the tempo slows down, only to reveal an entirely new side of Serj, as he belts out guttural insanity while Daron shrieks like a madman in the background. Death growls are also littered throughout the rest of the album on tracks such as "Know" and "War?", although "Mind" is the only other track where they are truly prevalent. Serj's lyricism is also more on-point than it ever was, as he is able to be expressive without being preachy ("War?", "P.L.U.C.K.") and give his two cents without busting everyone's balls.
System Of A Down is easily one of my favorite metal albums, and perhaps one of my favorite albums in general. It's easy to overlook it, as Toxicity was a monster on the charts and System is often lumped in with the "nu-metal" group. However, don't let this avert you from the record. It's easily the band's best output, showcasing all the positive qualities of their sound next to each other in perfect harmony. It's funny, it's intelligent, it's technical, it's frightening, it's eye-opening, it's thought-provoking, and much more. I highly recommend it.
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