System Of A Down were just about the craziest shit I had ever heard. As a young teenager, I’d been startled by Phil Anselmo’s shrill and burly blood-curdling scream at the outset of The Great Southern Trendkill, mystified by Jonathan Davis’ demonic scat on Life Is Peachy, frightened by Slipknot’s audiovisual onslaught, and barreled over by the sludgiest of the nü-metal B-listers. It was the high Ozzfest era, and weird was normal. But even in this context, SOAD’s intense idiosyncrasies stood out.
On the LA quartet’s self-titled debut, singer Serj Tankian was Robin Williams as the genie gone darkly deranged — howling and wailing with an unnerving wide-eyed passion, bottoming out into hellish death metal bellow-roars, shouting like an angry dictator ordering his troops into battle. The band behind him often exploded into halting, chugging downtuned power chords but just as often pivoted to combustible jazz, madcap alt-metal that pulled as much from the Pixies as Faith No More, or the kind of Eastern European party rock I’d later associate with Gogol Bordello. Tankian ranted about God and the devil, about sex and war, about genocide and Russian roulette, sounding sometimes like a maniacal circus ringleader and sometimes like a monster having a meltdown. To a sheltered white Midwestern teen like myself, this band was intoxicating, adrenalizing, and deeply confusing. I sensed there was a lot going on here beyond my grasp, but I was also titillated by how often and how aggressively Tankian yelled “FUCK!”
System Of A Down formed in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale among members of the area’s Armenian immigrant population. Tankian, guitarist Daron Malakian, and bassist Shavo Odadjian had been in a band called Soil together; upon recruiting original drummer Andy Khachaturian in 1994, they launched a new project named after Malakian’s poem “Victims Of A Down” and set about lighting up LA’s club scene. Among those smitten with System was the Def Jam co-founder and sagelike producer Rick Rubin, who signed them to his Columbia subsidiary American Recordings and supplied their debut with the same kind of visceral heft he’d once provided for their heroes Slayer. Describing the first time he saw SOAD at Hollywood’s 250-capacity Viper Room — around the same time John Dolmayan took over on drums in 1997 — Rubin once told the BBC’s Zane Lowe, “I laughed the whole time. It was the funniest thing I’d ever seen. But in a good way. It wasn’t like laughing like, ‘What a joke.’ It was just so over the top and so extreme — like, Armenian folk dancing with heavy metal riffs and wild political lyrics and screaming. It was crazy music.”
Slowly but surely, that first album made System Of A Down one of the biggest rock bands in the world. In the three years after its release in the summer of 1998, singles like the jarringly zany “Sugar” and the deadly serious “Spiders” worked their way into radio rotation. (Rubin remembers the program director at KROQ swearing the station would never play System but eventually relenting: “They clearly didn’t fit, but they were so good that they transcended not fitting.”) The band also toured relentlessly; the first time I remember hearing about them is when a much cooler and more “alternative” classmate drove out of town to see them play with Incubus at a Winter X Games-ass package deal called the SnoCore Tour. By the time my senior year kicked off at the end of summer 2001, I had gotten way into Radiohead and mostly moved past nü metal. At a time when the Family Values Tour axis of Korn and Limp Bizkit seemed in steep decline, my excitement for SOAD was just ramping up. They were special. The prospect of a new album was tantalizing. And with the sophomore LP they dropped 20 years ago tomorrow, they surpassed my wildest expectations.
Again produced by Rubin alongside Tankian and Malakian, Toxicity amped up the insanity of the first album to unhinged new extremes. System’s music sounded like it had been doused in whatever Barry Bonds was taking to fuel his record-breaking home run campaign that year. “On the last record, there were two tracks of guitars,” Malakian told MTV. “On this record, there’s 12 tracks on each song.” This was a heavier, angrier, wilder, sadder, funnier, freakier, more volatile System Of A Down. More overtly political too, which was good because I more or less entirely missed the messaging on the first LP. A quick spin through Wikipedia will inform you that “Suite-Pee” is “a criticism of pedophilia within the Church and religious extremism” while “Mind” tackles CIA brainwashing, but Tankian’s lyrics the first time around were cryptically artsy enough that you could shrug them off as probably-deep weirdo poetry without thinking too hard about them. After years of rocking out to Rage Against The Machine without bothering to research their pet causes, I had become pretty adept at experiencing lyrics at a surface level.
“Prison Song” put the meaning right there on the surface; it did not leave room to be ignored or misunderstood. The first song on Toxicity set symbolism aside in favor of a barrage of factoids about the prison industrial complex and a blunt proclamation that “They’re trying to build a prison for you and me to live in!” (Somehow, this was the bridge: “All research and successful drug policy shows that treatment should be increased and law enforcement decreased while abolishing mandatory minimum sentences!”) Two tracks later, “Deer Dance” quoted Howard Zinn and turned a polemic against militarized police forces into a shout-along chorus: “Pushing little children with their fully-automatics! They like to push the weak around!” Given the way the album art parodied the Hollywood sign, the title track’s condemnation of “the toxicity of our city” was clear enough. And it wasn’t tough to decode Tankian’s critique of science, which has “failed our Mother Earth” and “fails to recognize the single most potent element of human existence.” At a time when even elite nü-metal bands like Deftones mostly just sang about wild sex with troubled women — subjects SOAD explored on the orgy narrative “Bounce” and “Psycho,” a dismissal of a cocaine-addled groupie that hasn’t aged super well — these guys were using their platform to thrust inflammatory rhetoric into the view of millions of teenagers.
Still, there were still plenty of oblique lyrics to be parsed. Tankian on heroin addiction: “Pull the tapeworm out of your ass! (Hey!)” Tankian on immigration: “We don’t need to nullify! We don’t need to nullify!” Tankian on mind control: “I want to shimmy-shimmy-shimmy through the break of dawn, yeah-oh!” Tankian on environmentalism: “Why can’t you see that you are my child? Why don’t you know that you are my mind?” A song inspired by Malakian’s fascination with Charles Manson’s “ATWA” credo (air, trees, water, and animals) has this chorus: “You don’t care ’bout how I feel/ I don’t feel there anymore.” This shit was incredibly fun to scream with all your might as the music sent tingling waves of aggression rippling through your body, but for those who sought to actually understand what had this band so riled up, the SOAD curriculum still required a fair amount of digging and contemplation.
This became a problem for System Of A Down when Islamic terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon a week after Toxicity‘s release, killing nearly 3,000 people and instantly transforming American culture. The album’s powerhouse lead single “Chop Suey!” — an anthem built from dramatic minor-key swells and frantic stop-start bombardments, part Armenian folk song, part musclebound metalcore freakout — found Tankian and his quasi-hypeman Malakian addressing suicide, addiction, and religion in language that felt extremely unsettling in the aftermath of 9/11. There was talk of “self-righteous suicide” and angels who deserve to die, and Tankian finished by quoting Jesus Christ on the cross: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit… Why have you forsaken me?” It was more than enough to get “Chop Suey!” banned from Clear Channel stations along with every other song that had any potential to be in bad taste. The breathlessly aggressive “Jet Pilot” raised a few eyebrows as well. And at a time when Americans were ready to indiscriminately discriminate against anyone from the Middle East, the band’s Armenian heritage made them easy targets for racial profiling; Odadjian was even harassed and beaten by guards at his own gig in the fall of 2001.
None of the interpretive confusion and war-on-terror paranoia could stop Toxicity from becoming a blockbuster. The album topped the Billboard 200 the week of 9/11 and continued to sell in the weeks and months afterward; it’s now three times platinum. Though “Chop Suey!” disappeared from radio, it remained in heavy rotation on MTV and was nominated for a Grammy. “Chop Suey!,” “Toxicity,” and the dark ballad “Aerials” all cracked the Hot 100. SOAD continued to obliterate stages around the world, including one show in my hometown the following spring that affirmed they were a cut above their nü-metal peers.
In the years after they ceased releasing new music in 2005 — a drought that mercifully ended with two new protest songs last fall — System Of A Down became increasingly revered by a fan base that stretches far beyond the core nü-metal audience. Years later I even saw a guy karaoke the hell out of “Aerials” at a local bar. These songs, for all their bludgeoning force and psychotic strangeness, are practically classic rock at this point. Yet you simply don’t hear a lot of groups imitating SOAD’s approach because twisted brilliance on this level cannot be replicated. Decades later, they still might be the craziest shit I’ve ever heard.