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Holy Hell! System of a Down Turns 20

Holy Hell! System of a Down Turns 20

It’s hard to imagine how System of a Down became such a popular hit metal machine.

It’s hard to imagine how System of a Down became such a popular hit metal machine. It would be inaccurate to say that their debut record came out of nowhere. But you don’t get signed to American / Columbia records on a whim and in 1998, record companies were already increasingly engaging in risk-reduction. How then, does a band of mostly American Armenians with an erratic and unapologetically bizarre sound break into mainstream music and start topping charts without ever changing their formula? Larger bands have begun on platforms that bordered on the experimental and, much to their original fans chagrin, slowly modified their sound to appeal to larger and larger audiences (I’m looking at you, Korn). When you realize that they came to the attention of legendary producer Rick Rubin after releasing a demo tape and playing some of the most legendary LA clubs, you begin to realize how such a distinct sound could have come to be. Rubin is known for his philosophy of bringing a band into the studio and encouraging them to double-down on the things that make them most special. From The Red Hot Chilli Peppers to The Beastie Boys, Rubin has encouraged those who dared to be different to be powerfully different and to dial it up to 10. He can take a unique approach or characteristic sound and make it the pillar of your identity. This seems to be what he brought out in System of a Down. Some crunchy distorted guitar lines never hurts either. System of a Down begins fast, hard, and intense and that’s before the vocals even start. Once Serj Tankian begins climbing up and down the scale, sliding in and out of a high-pitched wails and low, guttural roars almost as fast as the bars change the listener is either going to dive in and hope for more or run screaming from the room in search of something far less stressful. It’s exactly this sort of polarity that the band encountered on the release of this album that ultimately resulted in its success. Fans of metal are already fans of extremes. If there is something that polarizes, or is denounced, there’s a good chance it’ll be embraced by the black leather clad masses. Bring them your tired, bring them your poor, bring them your incredibly hardcore.

Just as abruptly as “Suite Pee”, the albums opener ends, “Know” kicks in with a rapidly cascading drum pattern. Eventually Tankian begins to roar and the spotless, tight guitar riffs snarls to life right underneath him. The band uses pattern changes to emphasize the drama of a sound which is something that’s also common to certain forms of traditional Armenian music. It might be a bit of an overstatement to suggest that traditional music has that great an influence on their sound but at the very least there are some structural similarities. The melodic progression of “Spiders” falls in line with much of the music which was being made in the late 90s. The slow drum and bass plod interrupted by loud guitar strumming and riffs has more in common with Radiohead’s “Creep” or Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” than anything in a traditional Armenian music catalog. Too much has been made of this idea. Better to say that the band had a knack for intensity. That intensity is on display in every track on this album regardless of their relative tempo or melodic content. On the other hand, “Soil”, in its last few moments has guitar lines which absolutely sound like something atypical for American rock-n-roll. This occurs for a matter of seconds before the music drops out entirely and Tankian rises to a pterodactyl shriek for “Why the fuck did you take him away from us, you motherfucker?!/ Fucker!/ Fucker!”.

What is perhaps most remarkable about this album is that end-to-end the band follows the same sort of patchwork approach of bringing together disparate riffs, melodies, vocals, and even keyboards and yet at no point does anything ever sound the same. Each song is distinct, original and completely unrelenting in its aural beat-down. In “War?”, they screech “We will fight the heathens/ We will fight the heathens!”. Moments later, “DDevil”, has Tankian engaging in some self-mockery as he squeal and giggles his way through lines like “The devil is so lonely” and “Stupid people do stupid things/ Smart people outsmart each other/ Then themselves/ Then themselves.”. At one point during the middle of the song he can be heard snorting as if barely being able to keep it together in light of his own antics. There is no suggestion at all of this same type of humour when “Darts” engages in the same sort of all-over-the-map vocal dynamics.

Their later albums would eventually go on to out-sell their debut and most people would remember them now for the follow-up Toxicity. But the attributes that made Toxicity such an amazing album in itself were first introduced and forged on their self-titled debut. Purists would likely argue for its superiority but one thing is for certain, the band was one of the most consistent and uncompromising in their approach to music over the course of their career. System of a Down sounds as fresh today both in terms of production and and timelessness as it did on the day it was released. That’s the test of a classic album and System of a Down will go down in metal history as one of the most unique, exciting and innovative records to rise up and stomp all over the memory of the sloppy slacker drawl known as grunge. Metal and hardcore were born again.

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