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Burning Love 

System of a Down in a toxic new world

Wednesday, Dec 5 2001
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Page 4 of 5

Yet the band’s cultural and political traits seemingly intertwine in their lobbying, individually and collectively, for official recognition of the Armenian genocide. (Between 1915 and 1923, an estimated 1.5 million Armenians were “ethnically cleansed” under Ottoman Turkish rule. To this day, many governments refuse to recognize the massacres for their own political and economic reasons.) SOAD have sought to raise awareness of this sensitive topic through lyrics, interviews and events organized by ANCA (Armenian National Committee of America). The genocide is an emotional issue for the band, as all four members had ancestors murdered at the time, but, as vocalist Tankian points out, this dark episode of history holds lessons that transcend personal and cultural boundaries: “They committed a crime against humanity — and that’s universal, it’s not a national issue.”

Out of place in a sterile record-label office, Tankian, with his soothing old-world accent and genial, sagely disposition, is your favorite college professor — the one you could smoke pot with after class. “He’s the prophet,” glows Beneviste, “a plethora of knowledge when it comes to worldly issues.” He is indeed extremely well-versed in global affairs, with an abiding fascination with U.S. foreign policy and its ramifications. He’s philosophical and attentive, and thinks before he speaks. Tankian is an inadvertent enigma — a man of peace who whips mosh pits worldwide into a violent frenzy.

System of a Down are quick to stress that they only seek to make listeners think, not to preach. “We advocate no particular party or social climate,” says Dolmayan. “We’re speaking about enlightenment — not only spiritual but political. Knowledge is power — if you’re ignorant, you can be led astray.” SOAD dismiss any moral obligations regarding their lyrics, but are aware of a degree of responsibility that comes with their notoriety: “We’re in a position where we can change a lot of young minds — if we can say something positive to them for the future, then cool,” says Malakian. “But I would never want to corner ourselves and say that’s what we’re all about. Anything that’s going to pigeonhole us as anything, I’m against.”

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All of the band’s members profess that challenging, progressive music alone is enough for them, and that they’d be happy if Tankian simply sang “La, la, la, la” for the rest of their career. (In fact, they have a song in the can with almost exactly those lyrics.) “Words are never potent enough to reflect the world of emotions that an animal lives,” explains Tankian. “Music can come much closer to it, because music can bounce across boundaries. Sound itself is one of the most powerful catalysts to going beyond the physical world.” “As long as the song makes you feel the way we want it to make you feel,” says Malakian, “then I don’t give a fuck what Serj is saying — or what I’m saying, or playing.”

“I never assume anyone’s paying attention anyway, and am always surprised when they are,” Tankian says. “I don’t write for people — lyrics or music; it’s a selfish process. Ultimately I see how it affects people, but I can’t think of them [while writing].” Yet it’s almost as if, on Toxicity, Tankian has gone out of his way to defy the labelers, with flippant songs such as “Bounce” (the aforementioned ode to pogoing) and the willful abstraction of “Jet Pilot” flying ever faster in the face of easy categorization.

Perhaps SOAD’s being tagged as “political” is relative to the banality of much of the material they share the airwaves with. Musically and lyrically, they’re loners within the very “nu-metal” genre they helped to create, sharply contrasted against Slipknot’s unfocused, negative rage or Limp Bizkit’s manufactured mook-rock. This is a situation the band are both familiar with and relish: “We should have named ourselves Fish out of Water,” chuckles Odadjian. Even other “thinking man’s bands” with which SOAD enjoy considerable audience overlap — Rage Against the Machine, Tool — are lacking in System’s ever-present curve ball: humor. In the midst of their most political work to date, Toxicity’s “Prison Song” (presenting some hard truths about U.S. drug policy), Malakian’s demented falsetto refrain of “I buy my crack, I smack my bitch, right here in Hollywood” comically sweetens the pill.

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System have a near obsession with letting their expression take form organically — almost trying not to try. “We just do whatever is in our path,” insists Tankian, “and it’s that simple, that non-thought-about. We have absolutely no intentions or purposes.” But beneath such a blanket statement, SOAD proclaim that art by definition is revolutionary, and they therefore intend to reinvent themselves with each new album. Indeed, a degree of conscious creative planning has existed all along; the band deliberately kept their first disc very raw, live-sounding, with just one or two guitar tracks (a Rick Rubin trademark), in order to give themselves room to develop. Sure enough, Toxicity delivers multiple layers of guitars, sometimes as many as 12, and generally paints from a broader palette than its predecessor. Similarly with their live show, System are holding back on a lavish production to leave themselves somewhere to go in the future. Odadjian, who designed their minimalist “Pledge of Allegiance” stage set, says, “Ultimately, I want the show to be less of us and more of them [the audience] — trying to make it as interactive as possible; on top of the normal audio and visual, perhaps something they can touch, too.”

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