By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
|Photo by Larry Hirshowitz|
Labor Day in Hollywood’s sleepy back streets and the sky is full of helicopters. In an elementary-school yard, an LAPD trailer has appeared; rows of motorcycle officers straddle their idling machines, incongruous against children’s murals. Approaching the crossroads of Selma and Schrader, there are suddenly teenagers everywhere, black-clad and baggy-jeaned, choking the sidewalks and spilling into traffic. Thousands of kids. And hundreds of cops — cops in SWAT gear, cops on horseback, cops on motorbikes. Ten seconds later I’m at the epicenter of a full-blown riot. A lone youth, bandanna across his face, taunts law enforcement from the middle of the street, and they instantly respond — tear-gas canisters arcing into the intersection to release their chemical plumes, a cavalry charge from the north, baton charges from the south and east. All manner of missiles from the crowd are bouncing off the roof of my van, their impacts angrily amplified by its steel shell; the woman in the car trapped next to me is standing through her sunroof, hysterically howling for help. A sitting target, hemmed in by the throng, I abandon my vehicle and am swallowed by the chaos.
The cause of this unlikely turmoil? L.A.’s own art-metal juggernaut System of a Down had planned a free parking-lot concert to celebrate the release of their latest album, Toxicity. Instead of the expected 3,000 fans, however, more like 10,000 showed up, and without any kind of public announcement, the fire marshal forbade the band to perform. Outraged and ignored, elements of the crowd rushed and looted the stage, stealing all of the band’s equipment, then set about vandalizing nearby cars and businesses.
Seems that all concerned had simply underestimated System’s local popularity. But should we have been so shocked? This is a band that could sell out any club on the Strip before it was even signed to a label, and whose 1998 eponymous debut album has sold 850,000 copies in the U.S. alone. Toxicity, upon its release this September, debuted at No. 1 and was certified platinum within a couple of months — confirmation that, with a leg up from their misfit radio hit “Chop Suey,” SOAD have elevated to an unfamiliar plane.
* * *
Toxicityis a restless, bipolar affair: furiously mechanical carnival metal in bed with contemplative passages haunted by complex strands of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern melody, harmony and instrumentation, at once exhilarating and utterly terrifying in their aching, ancient beauty. Serj Tankian is a schizophrenic vocalist, shifting from a dying-breath whisper to hollered drill-sergeant tirades to the cartoon baritone of a nightmare singing telegram. Toxicity spews sudden shifts in pace, velocity and personality, with lyrics to match; topics range from the hypocrisy of the drug war and the origins of humankind to the joy of pogo sticks, the sorry spectacle of coked-out groupies and — ironically in light of their Hollywood debacle — police heavy-handedness.
We are family (clockwise from top left):
Shavo, Daron, Serj, John,
Photos by Larry Hirshowitz
System’s live show — when it’s allowed to happen — is a uniquely disturbing spectacle: guitarist Daron Malakian and bassist Shavo Odadjian — flailing like overwound, shirtless marionettes while voguing escaped-from-the-asylum shapes — flanking the gesticulating, bearded Tankian, the Rasputin of nu-metal and a most improbable yet captivating front man. All the while they’re executing with withering finality, as one with stoic drummer John Dolmayan’s precise yet passionate patterns. The dynamics are grotesquely exaggerated — brutal stutter-stop riffage topped with guttural belches of ire.
* * *
System of a Down (the name is derived from a poem by Malakian) formed in 1995; Tankian, Odadjian and Malakian attended the same Hollywood high school, but were in different grades and only knew of each other at the time (fans have since reveled in tracking down yearbooks containing the three of them). All of the band’s members were raised in Los Angeles — unusual in itself in a city stuffed with transplanted musicians. A wide array of influences including ’80s power metal, ’90s death metal and traditional Armenian music, laced with an admiration for the boldness and unpredictability of acts like Faith No More and Jane’s Addiction, shortly leapfrogged System to the forefront of the L.A. scene. Building on a huge pool of buddies, inspired promotion by Odadjian (who initially managed the band) and some ahead-of-his-time Web-site networking by Tankian, they could soon pack the Roxy, Whisky and Troubadour month after month on the strength of just a three-song demo tape. Not since Guns N’ Roses had an unsigned L.A. band generated such a following, and the industry just had to take notice.
Sure enough, manager David “Beno” Beneviste was soon drawn into the picture, blown away by System’s “sheer raw power, message and vibe.” “The band was just such an anomaly,” enthuses Beneviste, “you couldn’t not look at it, analyze it and take it seriously.” Though it was his first band, Beneviste shrewdly took the buzz SOAD had self-created and ran with it; he’s credited with pioneering the concept of “street teams” — those now ubiquitous huddles of fervent fans who accost concertgoers with fliers and promos. Noted producer/guru Rick Rubin was sucked into SOAD’s circle after witnessing a performance at the Viper Room: “I remember laughing the whole show,” he chortles, “’cause they didn’t look or sound like anyone else. It was funnyhow different they were!” Rubin — whose credits include the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beastie Boys, Slayer and Public Enemy — signed them to his American Recordings label and has been their producer ever since.