There’s a real problem with the world when you tell a random that you listen to/used to listen to System Of A Down (SOAD) and they look at you like you’re some kind of maniac. So granted, the four guys in the band are not exactly the most conventional looking. Granted their bass player has a better plaited beard than most high school girls. Granted they all have fucking odd surnames that sound like the Middle East version of Ninja Turtles: Odadjian, Tankian, Malakian and Dolmayan. And granted that despite the fact that they are massive in America, they really don’t like America. If you can put that all to one side (like, to the left, Beyonce style, but not necessarily in a box) you will appreciate how incredibly talented these guys are.
I was first exposed to SOAD by accident when I was fifteen. I went to Channel V’s now defunct WhatUWant live stage at Fox Studios, also now defunct, to see Alien Ant Farm (hah!) play their punk rendition of MJ’s ‘Smooth Criminal’ live. I was amazed at how many scary looking, black-clad guys had turned out to see a relatively harmless band, until the screen lit up and Andrew G announced the special guests for the day. As the opening strains of ‘Toxicity’ pumped out, everyone went apeshit. Nobody even noticed the AAAs tuning up and getting ready to play. I was suitably impressed, even though I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
When you study a rock-based instrument in school (drums, guitar, bass), you find yourself going on a quest around the middle of your teens to find the most, out-there, incredible band you can find and eventually play their shit. Everybody has their own version, depending on which genre you’re into; prog-heads usually end up with Tool or Dreamtheater, jazz-nuts go for Weather Report, guitar heroes go for Satriani or Vai and my little brother, funk-boy, is currently hooked on Tower Of Power. It’s all about finding the most extreme purveyor of your craft, and playing it relentlessly to people who totally couldn’t give a shit. Upon discovering SOAD, they became my heroes for a good year and a half, primarily due to their anti-establishment lyrics and almost crystal precision drumming of John Dolmayan.
Your average will find SOAD scary for any number of reasons. Vocalist Serj is classically trained and often sounds like a religious cantor, albeit one singing about suicide, on record. He also has about four personas; the crazy little girl, psycho inmate, choirmaster and preacher. The band is heavy on the metal, they are mind-bogglingly loud at the best of times and guitarist/arranger Daron has a penchant for laying on lead tracks like he’s in Queen. But they’re also highly melodic and harmony driven. Some of the chords the dual singers create with their voices are amazing, and when they’re not beating the living shit out of their instruments, they have the versatility to be any band they want.
This track, taken off their aptly titled B-sides collection, ‘Steal This Album’ is pretty much as much proof as you’ll get. Written by Daron in the wake of an awful break-up, it’s romantic, soft, features cello (!) and acoustic guitar and it’s brutally simple. You’ll probably never hear this mellower side of the band again, so next time you’re in an ideological fight with some idiot, chuck this on and prove that even the angriest bands sometimes have versatility.
System Of A Down – ‘Roulette’
And just for kicks, the awesome ‘Toxicity’ video. You get a great view of Dolmayan’s drumming in this one.