Photo by Ian JenningsThey were almost disconcertingly chummy
with each other on KROQ the other night all that backslapping between DJ Stryker and members of System of a Down, who conspired to turn KROQ into System Radio for a full hour to promote their new album, Mezmerize.
It was all part of the major media hype that started a few months ago when the unofficial single, Cigaro, was (wink, wink) leaked to the Internet. System is a hard band to understand, and a hard band to listen to, said drummer John Dolmayan. Amen and hallelujah to that! But how did the bozos at KROQ figure it out? Better yet, how did such an unlikely band become the alternative darlings of mainstream corporate radio? There are a million reasons these guys should not be KROQ stars. Just look at em: Front man Serj Tankians hair makes no sense; bassist Shavo Odadjians possums-tail goatee is long enough to play bass for him; producer/writer/guitarist Daron Malakian is a Napoleonic pip-squeak; and Dolmayan well, theres nothing peculiar about him except for, no disrespect to the family, his surname. (After 29 years of eating the stuff, Im pretty sure dolma
means stuffed grape leaves.) No, theyre not exactly GWAR, but not the cover of Vogue LUomo
either. Then there are the lyrics about the kombucha mushroom people, pogo-ing, groupies, pizza and Tony Danza, all of which may or may not serve as veiled social commentary. And then theres the singer, who doesnt so much belt a tune as speak in his own Elvish (Tankianian, Tankianese?). Sugar, the aforementioned song about the kombucha mushroom people, became the bands first radio hit around the time Fred Durst was rhyming the nookie with the cookie. Back then, System was alt-metal; and now theyre labeled prog alongside similarly successful bands such as Queens of the Stone Age and The Mars Volta. Sure, their musics not the debilitating migraine that Mars is, but itll still give you a headache. Remember that catchy, finger-snapping chorus, Wired were the eyes of a horse on a jet pilot/One that smiled when he flew over the bay, off of 2001s Toxicity?
Not so much? Well, Mezmerize
is the fourth of Systems multiple personalities (lets call her Sybil), and shes an even crazier quilt than their three previous albums, full of not-so-coherent and not-coherent-at-all rants peppered with lots of (remarkably hookless) ohhhhhs, hhhhhos, woo-hoos
and la la las
that, at end of the CDs mere 36 minutes, induce one giant huh?
Soldier Side is the calm-before-the-storm intro to B.Y.O.B., a party song that really drops the bomb: Malakian is unstoppable with the tempo changes, shifting from thrash metal to danceable chorus (a real chorus!) to punk and back to thrash again. Theres a lot of Freddie Mercury, Jello Biafra and Lux Interior in Tankian, but hes still in an unclassifiable class by himself. That Hoover vac for a mouth takes more unexpected detours than a gallon of Red Bull through the bloodstream, and is twice as dangerous. In one breath he can screech as if his fingers are caught in the car door, moan like the weight of the world is on his shoulders, ham it up with faux-operatic falsettos, and then shush himself altogether as if he cant stand his own racket. (On I-E-A-I-A-I-O, a cut off 2002s Steal This Album!,
he even takes the form of shaman, howling in a powwow that goes exactly as the song title reads.) Malakian grabs more of the singing spotlight here than in the past which, at first, doesnt sound like a good idea; hes a yelping Chihuahua compared to Tankians barking pit bull. But the dueling vocals on Cigaro (the two sing in tandem throughout most of the album) are so schizophrenically funny they turn the song into a schoolyard, I-know-youre-a-warmonger-but-what-am-I brawl wed all love to get caught in. Revenga is the craziest tongue-twister this side of Chop Suey Poisoning a drink/Bleeding in a sink/Choking with a link/Killing with a stink/Just your mothers/HO) but things get even nuttier. Tevye, meet your American cousins: Tankian and Malakian might as well be singing daidle, deedle, daidle, digguh, digguh, deedle, daidle, dum
on Radio/Video, cause it sounds like the metal version of If I Were a Rich Man as played by the Klezmatics. Thats what I mean by the unexpected.
The way Tankian and Malakian work as an interchangeable tag team of front man and axman, pulling the Persian rug out from under all that hard rock just when the riffs get too blistering, and the ideas teeter on the brink of preachy and morose. Which brings us to those pesky lyrics undecipherable, nonlinear suckers that they are. This is a socially conscious band, so what they say is supposed to matter, right? Sure. However, theyve mastered the art of the silly/serious and the just plain absurd so well, its hard not to chuckle along with them. Of course, this makes homing in on at least one cohesive thought on Mezmerize
a real bitch. Some tracks are clear enough: The stop-the-war-via-my-genitals stance of Cigaro (My cock is much bigger than yours . . . My shit stinks much better than yours) is obviously just imperialistic boasting, while Sad Statue is a depressed look at what Lady Liberty means to people today (You and me/Well all go down in history/With a sad Statue of Liberty/And a generation that didnt agree). B.Y.O.B., the albums second anti-war protest, packs a bigger punch than Boom!, Systems contribution to Songs and Artists That Inspired Fahrenheit: 9/11.
Much has been made of the incendiary chorus of B.Y.O.B: Why dont presidents fight the war?/ Why do they always send the poor? But when Tankian insists, You depend on our protection/Yet you feed us lies from the tablecloth, theres almost a Norman Rockwellian poignancy to it. The rest of the album is just jibber-jab. Old School Hollywood takes a shot at has-been celebs, apparently inspired by Tony Danza cutting in line at a baseball game; Violent Pornography tells you youre being brainwashed by TV, and its all Nabiscos fault; and This Cocaine Makes Me Feel Like Im on This Song yeah, no shit sounds like a wacky jingle for the Centers for Disease Control (Gonorrhea gorgonzola/Gonorrhea gorgonzola/Single files of clean feedings) and asks that you simply not eat the fish. You can scratch your head till the dandruff flakes form snow peaks on your shoulders, but it still wont make any sense. Mezmerize
is the first of a two-disc album; the second half, Hypnotize,
is slated for this fall. In the meantime, you can look forward to System co-headlining a tour with The Mars Volta. Thatll be the brainteaser of the year: Frances the mute versus Sybil.SYSTEM OF A DOWN