Toxicity at 15: Looking Back at System of a Down's Riot-Inducing Masterpiece

System of a Down's Shavo Odadjian, Serj Tankian and Daron Malakian (left to right) in the band's "Chop Suey!" video
System of a Down's Shavo Odadjian, Serj Tankian and Daron Malakian (left to right) in the band's "Chop Suey!" video
YouTube screenshot

In early 2001, fresh off two solid years of touring, System of a Down were poised to become one of the biggest rock bands in America. They rose to the occasion by delivering a defining document of the nu-metal era: their second album, Toxicity, an opera born of bong smoke, toeing the line between the lucid and the absurd, aiming its twisted mirror at the band's troubled hometown of Los Angeles.

Released on the eve of 9/11, Toxicity became a flashpoint for controversy. A canceled concert in Hollywood to promote its release ended in a riot. America's largest radio conglomerate banned the album's lead single. To this day, it remains a provocative statement; its experiments still feel strange and rewarding, its perspective skewed and even poetic.

Recording sessions took place at Cello Studios (now EastWest Studios, on Sunset Boulevard and Gordon Street) and were guided by both the band’s own vision and producer Rick Rubin. Pot smoke filled up the rooms and set off the fire alarms, recalls Dave Schiffman, who engineered the record. Guitarist Daron Malakian, who had written much of the music at home after the tour ended, drove the sessions. Tensions weren’t uncommon; one disagreement ended with Malakian busting drummer John Dolmayan's head with a microphone stand.

But the work yielded one of the best-sounding records of the era, from the smack that opens “Prison Song” to the chasmic guitars on closer “Aerials,” and all the transcendent harmonies and atmospheric passages in between.

“[Rubin] wanted the album to be really dry, in your face and unapologetic,” Schiffman recalls. "That’s part of what makes it feel as honest and powerful as it is.” But the precision of the record — its lean balance between heavy and light, psychosis and profundity — was due to how honed the band had become after two years of ceaseless work. “Serj was doing scratch vocals live that sounded amazing,” Schiffman says. “And the songs were so well arranged."

The record is, at its core, about L.A., the city where the four band members grew up. Not for nothing was Toxicity's cover a stark, manipulated photograph of the band’s name standing in for the Hollywood Sign. Each member of SOAD came from families that immigrated to Armenian-American-heavy enclaves in Hollywood, Glendale and the San Fernando Valley; Malakian, vocalist Serj Tankian, and bassist Shavo Odadjian all attended the Rose and Alex Pilibos Armenian School in East Hollywood.

Riots, one of the band’s recurring images, had broken out twice in front of the Staples Center in 2000: first when the Lakers won the NBA Championship in March, and again during the Democratic National Convention in August. Images of riot police subduing protestors in front of the brand-new arena, the pride of L.A., filled TV screens across the country.

Tankian was the band’s primary political voice. He was older than the rest of the band, a 33-year-old poet who had sold a software company before getting involved in the L.A. rock scene. It was Tankian, initially, who was most outspoken about the Armenian genocide, the cause with which the band became closely associated.

He wore a thick black beard and carried on like a deranged priest, spouting verse, speaking in tongues, issuing prophecies. “From the Staples Center, you can see America/With its tired poor, avenging disgrace,” he sang on “Deer Dance,” calling out riot police “pushing little children/With their fully automatics.”

“Toxicity,” one of the album’s dramatic peaks, bemoans the filth and destruction of a city — a city, the band acknowledged later, much like Los Angeles — as Tankian wails out like the last sane man on Earth. Tankian’s surreal delivery on Toxicity vacillates between inscrutability (“Wired were the eyes of a horse on a jet pilot”) and bulletin-like clarity ("the percentage of Americans in the prison system has doubled since 1985” — an actual lyric on this record). Tankian used three basic modes, unhinged, statistical and operatic, to amplify the ludicrousness of day-to-day American lives.

The manic “Bounce” is a narrative about a “sex orgy on pogo sticks,” in Tankian's words, and features both his customary growl and what sounds like a chorus of horny demons. “Psycho” yielded more to Malakian and his pinched guitar, which along with Dolmayan’s stomping drums and Odadjian’s muddy bass, create a mocking, bizarro club groove. Malakian, who was leading the band behind the scenes, was like a goblin biting at Tankian’s ankles, eyes bulging as he shrieks obscenities, yelping and squealing with both voice and guitar. On “Prison Song,” while Tankian is reading statistics, Malakian whines, “I buy my crack/I smack my bitch/Right here in Hollywood.”

Disaffectedness with L.A. permeates other parts of the record as well. “ATWA,” named after Charles Manson’s environmental doctrine, is undoubtedly also Malakian's vision. (Malakian reportedly set up a miniature shrine of Manson memorabilia in part of Cello where he recorded his guitar parts.) Manson’s story, of course, is part of the myth of L.A, a story about the darkness lurking behind the blue sky and the palms.

The album’s centerpiece, “Chop Suey!” is more about personal discontent. “We’re rolling ‘Suicide,’” Tankian murmurs, a reference to the song's original title, before Malakian releases a rolling wave of acoustic guitar. Malakian initially wrote "Chop Suey!" in the back of the band’s tour van. “To me, it’s about how people view death,” he told journalist Ben Myers. Tankian added the verse, with its shout-whisper call-and-response lyric about grabbing a brush and putting on a little makeup.

"I was shocked when Serj first sang the verse to me,” Rubin told Rolling Stone. "It's like, 'You really want this to be the verse?' And he's like, ‘Yeah.' He loved it. And it holds up. You have no perspective on something like this the first time you hear it."

The song is System of a Down’s greatest achievement, nu-metal’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a suite of tempered mania that lurches between soaring harmonies and stream-of-consciousness outbursts. It combines Tankian’s strengths as a vocalist with Malakian’s as a composer. “Trust in my self-righteous suicide,” Tankian and Malakian sing together in transcendent harmony, with piano chords and mandolins and symphonic guitars all going behind them.

On Sept. 5, Toxicity hit the streets, shooting to No. 1 on the Billboard album chart. But before that happened, the band found themselves in the middle of their own L.A. riot.

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Shaun “Vizzy" Vaughn had been a System of a Down fan since well before Toxicity came out. He remembers the afternoon of Sept. 4, when SOAD were scheduled to play a free concert in a parking lot on Schrader Boulevard in Hollywood.

It was Labor Day 2001, and the band was supposed to hit the stage at 4 p.m. Vaughn, 18 years old at the time, remembers kids listening to bootleg copies of Toxicity they'd burned to CD. The mood was calm until 4 o’clock passed, then 4:30. The crowd surged well past the promoters’ projected 1,000 attendees. The band's equipment, some of it brand-new and shined up for their upcoming tour, stood ready to go on the stage.

Finally, officials announced the show had been canceled due to capacity issues. “When the backdrop came down, all hell broke loose,” Vaughn remembers. Fans stormed the stage, destroying $30,000 worth of the band’s gear. Six fans were arrested, the L.A. Times reported. “It was pandemonium,” Vaughn says. (The band, in a statement written by Tankian, laid the blame on the cops for not letting them go ahead with the show.)

Three weeks later, Vaughn got another chance to see SOAD, this time at the band’s show with Slipknot at the Forum. “Something about the show changed me from the kid who wanted to be like, ‘Oh my God, can I touch your hand?' to ‘I really want to know what it's like that get in a person's head.’” Vaughn works now as director of media at Breal.tv and as a freelance photographer for bands like Slipknot, Prophets of Rage, and Korn.

Zeena Koda was living in New Jersey at the time, starting out her senior year of high school. Koda, an adoptive Angeleno who works at Motown Records and co-hosts the Revolver magazine podcast, grew up in Hillside, 15 minutes from downtown Newark.

“Where I grew up, it was an area where there were no white people,” Koda, who is Filipina, recalls. “It was a melting pot of most ‘urban' ethnicities — black people, Latinos, Brazilians. There were very few pure-bred white folks."

As a metal fan, Koda felt like an outcast. "People would say to me, “Oh, you listen to that crazy white shit." Part of what attracted Koda to System of a Down was that they were loudly, unabashedly non-Anglo, without letting their difference define them. “They came out of nowhere and were completely different — an entire band who were ethnic,” she remembers.

Toxicity, infamously, debuted at No. 1 right after 9/11. Backlash against the band was quick, and intensified when Tankian published a blog essay the day after 9/11 called “Understanding Oil,” in which he attempted to put the attacks in the context of the U.S.’s damaging foreign policy. Some radio stations that hadn’t already pulled “Chop Suey!” from rotation — it was listed on Clear Channel’s infamous post-9/11 memorandum – pulled it because of Tankian’s essay.

But Koda, who was in her own band at the time and continues to make music, found the band's outspokenness empowering. “Bands like System and Rage Against the Machine … [remind fans] that there is someone speaking out on their behalf,” she says. “It really impacted me, and I realized ... you need to stand your ground and do your own thing."

“I was a very angry kid when I was 12 or 13,” says Tigran Shamiryan, a System of a Down fan who grew up in Glendale and currently studies biology at UC Irvine. “I’m not as angry now, but I still passionately believe in the things I believe in."

Shamiryan remembers getting into System after Steal This Album!, a collection of songs cut from Toxicity, came out in 2002. "It’s typical for an Armenian to automatically like System of a Down,” Shamiryan admits. “But even if I wasn’t Armenian, I would still be obsessed.”

Particularly close to Shamiryan’s heart is System of a Down's 2015 free concert in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. The show can still be streamed in its entirety on YouTube.

"I’ve watched it about 25 times,” Shamiryan says. “The people of Armenia are not the best English speakers, and I doubt half of them even understand English. [But] they are all into it. Everybody."

There’s a connection between the band and their audience in the video, Shamiryan says, that could have only existed in that time and place. In that way, it too is like Toxicity, itself a marker of a time and place that feels at once distant and yet still relevant to where we find ourselves now.

“I can’t put it into words, the kind of record Toxicity is,” Shamiryan says. “There's something special about the connection the listener makes with that record.” It’s a connection that, 15 years later, has yet to loosen its hold.


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