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Holy Hell! Toxicity Turns 20

Around the turn of the millennium, metal witnessed a surge in mainstream popularity the likes of which the mainstream had never seen up to that point, and at the time of writing hasn’t been seen since. Whether it be nu metal bands like Disturbed or the rap metal of Linkin Park, the wave consumed everything in its path. But with every wave comes a crash. Before long, the music world left the Monster Energy-fueled aesthetics of alternative metal behind. Beyond the occasional nostalgia trip many will take, the Y2K-era metal audience is relegated mostly to those that choose to spend their Friday nights tuned into WWE Smackdown (no disrespect to Smackdown.)

Among the slew of alternative metal projects that were cropped up around this time, few have proven to stand the test of time. None, however, pass the test with flying colors like Toxicity by System of a Down. Listening to SOAD’s sophomore album in 2021 is ominous in a way few albums ever achieve. The themes of rampant authoritarianism and environmental destruction seem prophetic in the wasteland of modern-day American politics as lead vocalist/enigma Serj Tankian screams lines such as “Pushing little children with their fully automatics/ They like to push the weak around.” Although Toxicity was released a week before the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, it’s songwriting comes packed with the philosophical insight of someone who has had twenty years to observe the unraveling of events in a post-9/11 world. Although, this may say more about how closed off to socio-political issues the public were rather than how good SOAD were at predicting the future.

Despite the abrasiveness of the album (especially by 2001 standards), they peaked at the number one spot on the Billboard charts. Listening to some of their contemporaries, it becomes clear what made Toxicity such a prime example of how to make universal—as well as timeless—alternative metal. The most apparent aspect is the way SOAD embraced outlandish songwriting while not giving up their maturity. One of the hang ups people have with mainstream metal from this era is the shallow lyricism rooted in festering frustration against, vaguely, society.

This trend resulted in the audience mostly consisting of emotionally underdeveloped young men taking their anger out at the world by headbanging to some Slipknot, Korn, etc. The problem is that most of the audiences eventually grew out of this phase, leaving the music as little more than a memory to reminisce about years down the line. Tankian’s writing was rooted, mostly, in his work as a lifelong human right’s activist along with his desire to create fun music. Because above the angst, and above the bombast, SOAD was unapologetically fun, which tends to have much more longevity than what could be considered “cool” at any given moment in history.

Tankian’s philosophy when writing Toxicity was to craft songs that informed while never compromising on how hard they rocked. The result was a batch of blistering fast metal with some of the catchiest hooks ever put to paper. This sticky songwriting style doubles as an extremely efficient method of fitting sharp political messaging into a consumer-friendly package. While the themes may be lost on some by virtue of how eccentric the lyricism and performances are, songs like “Needles” came through with succinct writing about negativity sucking the soul out of people as if it were a parasite. SOAD put themselves at risk of losing avid listeners with a refrain like “Pull the tapeworm out of your ass, hey,” but for those that welcome the absurd imagery, Toxicity earned its status as a classic metal record. Without the poppy approach, they never would have produced political anthems on the scale of “Prison Song” or the title track, both of which stand as all-time best rock songs, regardless of subgenre.

Following the bands magnum opus, their discography was abruptly cut short with Hypnotize in 2005, and for the next 15 years, rumor after rumor circulated about a return until 2020. Last November, they released the singles “Protect the Land” and “Genocidal Humanoidz” as a fundraiser in support Armenians fighting in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. While it appears that this is an isolated case of them returning to the studio to support a very specific cause, it was refreshing to see that after all those years, they maintained their principles, recording art with deeply personal meaning to the group.

  • 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. …

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