Album Reviews


System of a Down


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This record is literally half a killer. Its eleven songs are just a down payment on the double whammy that is Mezmerize/Hypnotize, the third studio album by the Los Angeles-based Armenian-American metal band System of a Down. The second disc, Hypnotize -- recorded by guitarist and main songwriter Daron Malakian, lead vocalist and co-lyricist Serj Tankian, drummer John Dolmayan and bassist Shavo Odadjian during the same sessions -- arrives in late fall.

Sending a two-CD set into the world this way certainly beats the more common, gargantuan hubris of issuing two simultaneous overstuffed records -- but not by much. True: There is little fat and no cotton candy in these thirty-six minutes. Everything on Mezmerize hits and splits with viciously honed purpose -- even the exaggerated comedy of Tankian's idiot-Caruso la-la-la's in the mash-up thrash of "B.Y.O.B." and the overdubbed chorale of what sounds like a dozen ditsy Bjorks in "This Cocaine Makes Me Feel Like I'm on This Song," inexplicably chirping, "Gonorrhea Gorgonzola." But if there is a specific thematic outrage or a bigger forward-metal objective connecting Mezmerize and whatever's on Hypnotize -- both co-produced by Malakian and Rick Rubin -- you have to wait to find out. It's like getting a one-two punch in six-month installments.

The upside: You have plenty of time to drink in the strangeness. Compared to this infuriated, intricately detailed delirium, System of a Down's previous album, 2001's Toxicity, was classicist-metal insurgence. In its breakneck-suite song construction and relentless, accusatory vigor, Mezmerize instead rants and rips like a bizarre, gripping compression of the Mars Volta's attention-deficit disorder on Frances the Mute and the operatic contempt of the Mothers of Invention's 1968 hippie-culture broadside We're Only in It for the Money. Yes, that is an extreme comparison. But this is extreme diatribe.

Considering the lethal, obsessive precision of the music on Mezmerize -- Malakian was so determined to get it right that he also played bass on all but three songs -- he and Tankian are often blunt and crude in their mockery, as if they're starting to run out of faith in elevated heavy-rock discourse. America's military-industrial aristocracy runs amok, with big cigars and bigger cocks, in the Freudian mosh pit of "Cigaro." The sheep at the bottom of the ladder, content with reality TV and fifteen-minute dreams of celebrity, get it howitzer-style as well in "Radio/Video": "Hey, man, look at me rockin' out/I'm on the radio/Hey, man, look at me rockin' out/I'm on the video." That's practically the song's entire lyric, and, frankly, it's a bit like shooting fish in a barrel: American Idol and Maroon 5 clips are hardly a major threat to the republic.

But at its reckless best, which is a lot, Mezmerize is thrilling confrontation, a graphic reflection of a nation tearing itself apart in anger, fear and guilt. "B.Y.O.B." is a hellfire-protest suite in itself, the backroom economics of the Iraq War ("Everybody's going to the party, have a real good time/Dancing in the desert, blowing up the sunshine") scored with a time-lapsed crush of vocal hooks and terror-guitar riffs packing vintage echoes of early Metallica, Black Flag's "TV Party" and even some good old Napalm Death. "Sad Statue" is a straight, breathless race through hammered-note guitar heaven that suddenly breaks into a half-time blackened-pop chorus, a brief but striking upfront burst of the disappointment and surrender lurking deep inside even heavy artillery like "Violent Pornography" and "Revenga."

In fact, Mezmerize closes with the nearest thing in System's playbook to sympathy: "Lost in Hollywood," a requiem for a runaway with rainy-gray-treble guitars and gilded with monastic-prayer harmonies. It is an unexpected, affecting way to end a record of otherwise pure psychosis, but "Lost in Hollywood" is the end of the line only for the poor souls trapped on those streets. For us, Malakian's final breath -- "You should've never trusted Hollywood" -- marks just a break in the action, a pause in the assault. To be continued.


(Posted: Jun 2, 2005)


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