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 Tankian’s hair makes no sense; bassist Shavo Odadjian’s possum’s-tail goatee is long enough to play bass for him; producer/writer/guitarist Daron Malakian is a Napoleonic pip-squeak; and Dolmayan — well, there’s nothing peculiar about him except for, no disrespect to the family, his surname. (After 29 years of eating the stuff, I’m pretty sure dolma means stuffed grape leaves.) No, they’re not exactly GWAR, but not the cover of Vogue L’Uomo 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 there’s the singer, who doesn’t so much belt a tune as speak in his own Elvish (Tankianian, Tankianese?). “Sugar,” the aforementioned song about the kombucha mushroom people, became the band’s first radio hit around the time Fred Durst was rhyming the nookie with the cookie. Back then, System was alt-metal; and now they’re labeled “prog” alongside similarly successful bands such as Queens of the Stone Age and The Mars Volta. Sure, their music’s not the debilitating migraine that Mars’ is, but it’ll 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 2001’s Toxicity? Not so much? Well, Mezmerize is the fourth of System’s multiple personalities (let’s call her Sybil), and she’s 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) ohhhhh’s, hhhhho’s, woo-hoo’s and la la la’s that, at end of the CD’s 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. There’s a lot of Freddie Mercury, Jello Biafra and Lux Interior in Tankian, but he’s 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 can’t stand his own racket. (On “I-E-A-I-A-I-O,” a cut off 2002’s 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, doesn’t sound like a good idea; he’s a yelping Chihuahua compared to Tankian’s 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-you’re-a-warmonger-but-what-am-I brawl we’d 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 mother’s/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. That’s 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, they’ve mastered the art of the silly/serious and the just plain absurd so well, it’s 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/We’ll all go down in history/With a sad Statue of Liberty/And a generation that didn’t agree”). “B.Y.O.B.,” the album’s second anti-war protest, packs a bigger punch than “Boom!,” System’s contribution to Songs and Artists That Inspired Fahrenheit: 9/11. Much has been made of the incendiary chorus of “B.Y.O.B”: “Why don’t 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,” there’s almost a Norman Rockwell–ian 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 you’re being brainwashed by TV, and it’s all Nabisco’s fault; and “This Cocaine Makes Me Feel Like I’m 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 won’t 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. That’ll be the brainteaser of the year: Frances the mute versus Sybil.SYSTEM OF A DOWN | Mezmerize (American/Sony)

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