Review Summary: Welcome to the Serious Side.
By the time they released the Mesmerize/Hypnotize
combo in the late 2000’s, System Of A Down had long shed the mantle of “just another bunch of new metallers” and affirmed themselves as a valid band with very valid musical ideas. With two revered albums behind their back, as well as an admittedly bare-bones collection of B-Sides and Rarities, the band were established players in the genre, and the conceptually-driven duo of albums only increased their popularity among the thinking metal masses.
More importantly, however, Hypnotize
was the album that finally broke my long-standing resistance to System Of A Down. For almost tem years, since the group’s millenial debut album, I had viewed SOAD’s music as weird for weird’s sake, and could not understand the Tool-level worship going on around the group, from fans and press alike. True, Spiders
was awesome, but precious little else managed to excite or interest me. All that change the first time I gave Hypnotize
a listen, in the record store, before buying it. From that moment on, I was on the SOAD train, for better or for worse.
Billed as a more serious counterpart to the playful Mesmerize
, listening to Hypnotize
can be compared to reading a really good spy novel, one by, say, Robert Ludlum: while there may be slightly duller descriptive passages, most of the time you’re hanging at every turn, waiting to see which twist is going to be thrown at you next. This album is no different, springing a new surprise around every corner, and most of them genuinely enthralling.
Take, for example, the very beginning of the album: as if to state their definitive separation from nu-metal, Attack
starts with…a blastbeat. To be sure, it quickly descends into a calm, sung passage from Serj Tankian, but it plants extreme-metal roots which the group does not hesitate to explore in the following songs. In fact, the basis for the music here is closer to thrash metal than the downtuned alt-metal of yore, but just like before, that basic batter is then peppered with every possible ingredient imaginable. Armenian and Middle Eastern influences, while seriously diluted in relation to the past, remain there, not afraid to surface in songs such as She’s Like Heroin
or the title track. Elsewhere, there are touches of straight-up rock’n’roll, jazz, folk, and even a direct citation to the acoustic guitar on House Of The Rising Sun
(listen to Lonely Day
,compare and contrast). The result is a melting pot as tasty as any Mr. Bungle ever had to offer.
To top it all off, most of the songs are of incredibly high quality. Sure, there’s the occasional duller moment (Kill Rock’n’Roll, Lonely Day
), but very few of the songs fail to have at least one noteworthy detail, be it a purposefully silly lyric or an unexpected musical style blended into the mix. And, of course, the standouts here side with the best the genre(s) have to offer. Standing tallest among them is the unbelievable Tentative
, certainly one of the most purely beautiful songs I’ve ever heard from a metal group, arguably from any group. Tankian’s plaintive intoning of ”where do you expect us to go when the bombs fall”
, backed by female vocals and sorrowful, acoustic-driven music, is genuinely moving, and reminds us of why we like good music so much. This melancholy atmosphere is carried over onto the next track, U-Fig
, which despite not working as well as its predecessor is a damn good song in its own right.
On the other side of the spectrum are the other two standouts. SOAD admitted that, just like Mesmerize
had had a few “serious” songs strewn in, so had a few more playful songs seeped into Hypnotize
. That statement justifies Tankian’s manic recitation of ”banana, banana, banana, terracotta, banana, terracotta, terracotta pie”
before launching into semi-coherent shrieks (on Vicinity of Obscenity
), or a song based around the phrase ”selling ass for heroin”
which not only works, but is also a standout.
Still, this lighter, sillier side serves merely as a respite from an otherwise charged album (both lyrically and musically), pervaded most of the time by a strong, potentially dating anti-war sentiment, with many of the songs focusing on the victims of warfare, be they military or civilian. Yet, when taken out of the Bush-Iraq context, the lyrics are just universal enough to amount to more than just period pieces, instead complementing the also interesting musical side. By the time the album closes with the haunting Soldier Side
– which also opened Mesmerize
, bringing the two-piece set full circle – one has been enchanted, moved, amused, touched and entertained, barely noticing that 40 minutes have elapsed in the process. Not all of this album is top-notch, but a considerable amount of it is, making it commendable to all those who like to be surprised by their music and don’t mind a touch of schizophrenia in their rock’n’roll.
Vicinity Of Obscenity
She’s Like Heroin