Near the end of a century, in 1997, System of a Down played at a notable Hollywood club called The Viper Room. There they caught the eye of Rick Rubin, a famous American producer, known for his raw and stripped-down sound of production. In an interview in 2014, he recalled: "It was packed. Two hundred people. Sold out! And I remember watching the show and just laughing. I laughed the whole time. It was the funniest thing I've ever seen, but in a good way, it wasn't like laughing what-a-joke, it was just so over the top and so extreme: Armenian folk dancing with heavy metal riffs and, you know, wild political lyrics, and screaming. It was just crazy music, and usually a lot of heavy music falls into a similar thing. I am not gonna say it's interchangeable, 'cause it's not, but there are certain rules of heavy metal let's say, that everyone sorta follows, and System of a Down were a heavy band, you could say a heavy metal band, who didn't follow those rules."
System of a Down is a four piece American band with Armenian heritage. They draw inspiration from heavy metal, traditional Armenian folk, hardcore and even goth and pop, but as their guitarist said: "We don't belong to any one scene." and "People always seem to feel the need to put us into a category, but we just don't fit into any category."
System of a Down's self-titled album is their debut album, released on June 30, 1998, by Rick Rubin's American Recordings.
Lyrics were written by Serj Tankian, their main vocalist. They delve into topics of war, mind manipulation, drugs, society and the Armenian Genocide, but get obcurified with mythological and cultural references and abstract-ism.
"Everything affects everything else. You think your life may not be affecting too many people, but it does. Your silence affects people. Your silence is sometimes more deadly than your words and you don't know it."
—Serj Tankian (System of a Down's vocalist), an interview in Japan, 1999
When you first see the record, you'll notice the cover artwork - a hand reaching out to you from the blackness. It was designed by John Heartfield, a German artist who pioneered the use of art as a political weapon, and it was designed for an anti-fascist, World War II-era poster directed against the Third Reich which corresponds with the spreading-a-message idea of the band. The text on the original poster stated: "A hand has 5 fingers! With these 5 grab the enemy!". This slogan inspired the text contained on the back of the System of a Down album: "The hand has five fingers, capable and powerful, with the ability to destroy as well as create". Later, it was written: "Open your eyes, open your mouths, close your hands and make a fist."
When you play the record, it starts with the hazardous Suite-Pee. Ten seconds of Daron Malakian's fast-paced harmonic notes. He is cautiously gliding his fingers across the top of his guitar neck, and then, at the tenth second, the riffs punches and reveals the actual sound of the guitar: distorted and muddy, in drop C tuning. Backup-ed with John Dolmayan's powerful folky rhythms. A few moments later, the main vocalist Serj starts singing, reciting, almost rapping and growling. The song continuous into a chaotic display of musical force until the end of the first minute. Everything briefly stops.
Shavo Odadjian's swampy bass plays C|-0-1-0-0-5-4~|, the drums come crashing down, the vocalist growls from the rock bottom of his voice and along with the guitar's distortion cuts through the moment of relief, creating a contrast between relaxation and tension and in this moment, System of a Down's genius is shown for the first time. Catharsis. "Lie naked on the floor and let the messiah go through our souls."
Every member of the band contributes perfectly, not too much and not too little, but just as much as it is needed, you could almost say it's minimalist music.
The song is the opposite of boring, it constantly changes time signatures, dynamic and Serj his singing style, doing everything he knows.
The second song is called Know. In the begging, drums make an intro, striking all over the drum kit, but avoiding the cymbals. Crunching riffs, without manners intrude it's territory. The bass pushes every other instrument for a second, giving air to breathe, and then the vocalist ends it's monopoly and starts screaming. The song develops, seamlessly, but abruptly ends without an outro.
Sugar follows up immediately and outbreaks where the previous song left off, without any warnings or announcements.
Sugar is System of a Down's first single, and the music video for it shows the band playing on a stage, with an American flag intercut with images of public violence, hangings from the Holocaust, armies, footage of the Upshot-Knothole Grable nuclear test and footage from the German film Metropolis.
The guitar's flavorful melodies and crazy vocals are, on the face of it, randomly scattered around the song while the mad, but constant bassline and unconventional, but strict rhythms keep it from falling apart, except when they don't and, in the process, create moments of musical greatness. The songs' end is as sudden as it was it's start.
Suggestions is the name of the fourth track on the album which is also a roller coaster of a track. Everyone is making and releasing tension in brilliant uniformity throughout the entire track. Serj nonchalantly switches between angry and calm, Daron plays nervous melodies stopped by heavy, chugging riffs and John and Shavo make the soundscape complete. The end of the song is defined by a tail of eerie instrumental sounds building the perfect entrance for the next song:
"Your thoughts, and dreams are no longer sacred, as they are exposed to a weapon known as remote viewing and monitoring."
It starts with an a haunting bassline which will be the recurring motif of the song. The most darkly beautiful vocal lines levitate above the bass' melody. "The piercing radiant moon, / The storming of poor June, / All the life running through her hair." If you listen closely, you will hear ominous echoes. The song escalates at the end of the third line on a louder level and the main guitar copies the motif from the bass guitar. The song, step by step, evolves into a post-rock like, but immensely more heavy, gradation which will leave you breathless.
"For those that control the central nervous system, control society, and the world."
The fifth track, also the shortest one, DDevil, enters the stage with playful drums and bass. Loud and noisy, black-metal sounding, guitar and crazy lyrics sung in a fiendish fashion contrast the nocturnal, depressing atmosphere of the previous song.
Soil is a song which is a moshpit of sonic waves and frequencies, until, finally, the 2:12 mark hits, when all the anger accumulated is wonderfully freed. At 2:52 and, for an instant, we are again seized and reminded of the wrath from within.
"We first fought the heathens in the name of religion, then Communism, and now in the name of drugs and terrorism. Our excuses for global domination always change."
War" is next. First half of War" is dynamic and full of energy and the second half is Tankian's anti-war preachings with ominous background atmosphere until it explodes again.
"Mind control technology has been used by the CIA since the 1950s as part of their non-lethal, covert weapons program."
Again, one more excellent song - Mind. Calm bassline combined with erotic string bending of the guitar and the hypnotic repetition of the lyric: "Look at each other." which eventually turns to a more aggressive passion, but with equally melodic nature.
"The February 18 edition of Britain's NEW SCIENTIST Magazine reports that the Geneva-based World Health Organization suppressed, under political pressure, a report which confirmed that marijuana is safer than either alcohol or tobacco."
An eerie intro. It's the track called Peephole. An extremely catchy vocal melody, supported by the rest of the band in every fraction of time, leads a person to learning all the lyrics no matter how weird or enigmatic they are. "When your moon is fake, / And your mermaids cry / Do you ever believe you were stuck in the sky." It's the longest track with a lot of variety and grabs for attention from 0:00 to 4:05.
CUBErt is a short and sweet, a classic, SOAD song. It contributed the overall album by increasing the density and diversity. Also a great example how many ideas can be condensed into a small-time frame.
"Why do old societies hold the pantheon of 12 gods to be true, while modern societies generally have one God""
Darts is the 12th song, moving the album closer to it's end. The magnum opus of this little masterpiece begins at 1:24 when there is a sample of a clock ticking while the drums and the bass are emphasizing it, which is shattered multiple times by growls and distortion, but then, it reassembles again with the lyrics: "Clock men for they will fail, / Fear not the gods that come from the sky, / not for the one who've lost their way, / Long not for the one who've lost their way".
"System of a Down would like to dedicate this song to the memory of the 1.5 million victims of the Armenian Genocide, perpetrated by the Turkish Government in 1915."
And the last song P.L.U.C.K. remains. It represents everything you could want from a System of a Down song: a catchy folk inspired guitar and vocal melody, brutal heaviness, tender moments amidst all the sonic chaos and a strong political and spiritual message.
And an abrupt end.
In the booklet, underneath the band member's photos, the text read: "ANNOUNCE YOUR ANTHEMS ON THE CEILING. WE DANCE, ANNEXED BY POWER. CASUAL NECKTIES EMBRACE, THE HUNGRY HUNGER FURTHER, IMAGES RULE THROUGH THE MEDIA, COMMERCIAL ORWELLIANISM, PRODUCING UNVEILED ICEBERGS, RUNNING TRANSPARENT ELECTRICAL CABLES, CURVING STRING ENSEMBLES, WITNESSED BY HANGINGS FROM FLAGPOLES OF SOULS AVENGED BY DR. CLOCK. FRESH PAINT, NAKED MELTING FIGURES MIXING THE REVOLUTION AGAINST T.V. SENTENCING, AT THE HANDS OF BRUTAL MEN AND THEIR MILITARY BUSINESS WORLD. LET US INSTIGATE THE REVOLT, DOWN WITH THE SYSTEM!"