For some reason, people seem to group System Of A Down in with nu-metal has-beens like Limp Bizkit and Korn as the butt of every joke about rock music in the 1990s. It’s completely unjustified, of course, because the Armenian-American quartet remain some of the most fiercely skilled and ferociously inventive players in the game, even though they haven’t recorded anything as a unit since 2006. The first time I saw this band was by accident, I was a dumb kid who wanted to see Alien Ant Farm covering Michael Jackson (lord forgive us for our sins) and the band who happened to be on after them were a bunch of Middle Eastern-looking guys dressed in black with some pretty amazing beards. It was 2001 and unbenknownst to me, the band had just dropped Toxicity, which would go on to be a defining record for every kid who wanted to play guitar really fast and drums really loud. But in amongst all the hysteria and the screaming and the double kicks and the shredding remained one kernel of truth; System were innovators. They blew rock’n'roll apart when they started, and they’ve been detonating depth charges ever since.
Everything you need to know about SOAD you can learn from the guy who chose to produce them. Rick Rubin, who has helmed every Chili Peppers record since BloodSugarSexMagik and launched Beastie Boys onto the world, only had to hear Serj, John, Daron and Shavo play together a few times at clubs before signing them to Columbia Records. It’s been said that Rubin only works with groups who smash genres together and bring something new to the table, and system, with their frenetic mix of almost every subcategory of rock and a few borrowed folk elements from their ancestral tradition, completely fit the bill. Serj Tankian, who has gone onto enjoy a successful solo career, always sounded a bit like a preacher or a cantor at a Synagogue, sustaining those huge high notes like he was leading a prayer rather than calling his fans to declare war on everything. And that’s the other thing that set this band apart; inasmuch as they were loud and aggressive, they were really smart. Their platform was always to open their audience’s eyes to the injustices of history in a similar vein to Rage Against The Machine, but with such fervour and harmony that it was surprisingly easy to sing along, even inside strange time signatures and rapidly shifting sections.
‘Toxicity’ is one of the few modern rock tracks, outside of perhaps something by Tool (or on the other end of the spectrum, Radiohead) that moves so quickly through material and yet manages to keep the ear from giving up. Launching straight from the 6/8 balladry of the opening into an earth-shuddering drum groove which slices up the bar and rolls back into the beat, the very foundation of ‘Toxicity’ is mind-bogglingly difficult. And yet, it’s so easy to like. The drop-key guitar riffs are absolutely massive, Serj wails through the chorus and shifts persona from angel to anarchist in the space of one phrase and then there’s toms exploding everywhere like you’re behind the trenches in Afghanistan. Going from quiet to loud was a tred and tested formula by 2001, so System decided to do it twice as quick and push both extremes. The verses are actually beautiful; no two-note ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ licks here, while the rest, well, it’s kind of what moshpits were designed for. The slower speed of the figure in 3 rather than 4 actually works to the band’s advantage, allowing them to cram more notes into the same amount of space and seemingly create a writhing mass through sound before it’s even in front of them. And that’s before the bridge, which gives Rubin’s other favourite band, Slayer, a run for their money with some incredibly high-density chugging that blocks out all the light for a good thirty seconds and has the effect of making the chorus look sunny by comparison. Lyrically, it was the stuff teenage boys lived for, sonically, it managed to take a format that had reached the end point of high-scale production and make it prove itself. Just as there will never be another Beastie Boys, it’s unlikely there will ever be another System Of A Down.
I imagine my parents are quite happy about that.
System Of A Down – ‘Toxicity’