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Mezmerized 

Thursday, May 26 2005
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Diana Hernandez is nursing a nasty sunburn. “That’s the sacrifice you make for a band like System,” she says, shrugging. Hernandez, 17, is in line outside Best Buy’s giant Burbank outlet for an in-store appearance by art-metal über-band System of a Down. She arrived at 5:30 a.m. for the band’s 7 p.m. show. “I’ve had 14 hours to think about it,” she says, “but I still don’t know what I’m going to say to them.” Celebrity in-stores are curious rituals: Fans wait for hours not to see their heroes perform, or even really to talk (beyond cursory chat), but just to be. It’s as if that briefest press of an idol’s flesh will open a superchannel to their art thereafter. System of a Down have sufficient commercial clout, after three platinum-plus albums, to hold the launch for their new album, Mezmerize, almost anywhere. They chose a bland Burbank shopping complex over Times Square or Tokyo because, as one of the few full-blown rock-star acts who were actually raised and formed in L.A., they wanted to recognize their local following. There was an added undertone of expectation to this event, because when System tried a similar stunt for the release of their 2001 Toxicity disc — a free outdoor concert in Hollywood — more than triple the expected 3,000 fans showed up, the fire marshal pulled the plug, and members of the crowd went berserk, stealing all of the band’s equipment before riot police prevailed. But tonight the perhaps 2,000-strong crowd — principally teens and 20-somethings in black T-shirts and jeans — are the image of excited restraint. Teetering along the thin line between admirable, pitiful and downright psychotic devotion comes Orlando Salas, a 22-year-old mechanic and musician who’s traveled from his native Peru for the event. “System rocks! It’s the best!” says Orlando, before offering the real explanation for making the 8,000-mile-plus roundtrip: “Daron [Malakian] is a genius!” Thing is, Malakian is a fucking genius. He’s the principal creative force behind his band’s bizarrely entrancing exotic/outraged/brutal/funny/politicized metal mongrel, which, with Mezmerize (and sister disc Hypnotize, due in the fall), has reached its illogical, harmony-heavy, genre-ending zenith. Emerging with his bandmates from Best Buy’s backrooms, the diminutive guitarist — a reclusive figure more comfortable shredding on arena stages than walking down the street — is wide-eyed, and laboring under a bizarre, monklike Middle-earth haircut. The whoops gather strength as the remaining three Systems appear: vocalist Serj Tankian, looking like he just got through teaching contemporary pottery at the local community college, with his Robert Plant ringlets and Mona Lisa smile; bassist Shavo Odadjian, recently re-styled as the Armenian Huggy Bear, complete with CHIPs shades, blue hoody and shady stoop; and upright, mustachioed drummer John Dolmayan, the big brother that every kid would want on his side. The signing session is for the most part routine: All manner of items — from violins and skateboards to foreheads and cleavage — are cordially marked by the band, seated at a long table, as a podium of photographers jostle for angles. What isn’t routine is the number of guitars offered for autographing — maybe one in 20 fans carries one. “This is my first guitar, and I’m going to get it signed,” enthuses Chris Bennett, a 19-year-old Palmdale musician who’s been queuing since midnight, black Stratocaster in hand. “I promise not to put it on eBay!” And that’s it: System’s music triggers active, sympathetic expression in others, and, while a million paintbrushes may not yield a Picasso, if just one of these ax-wielding youngsters blossoms into another Malakian, then their generation too will have a means to transcend artless, gutless career-rock. To read more on System of a Down, click here.

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Reach the writer at progers@laweekly.com

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