Basslines and Protest Signs Part 44: System of a Down

By | February 26, 2020 at 1:00 PM
Photo credit: Carlos Varela

The nu-metal boom had all but taken over the landscape of heavier music in the mid-to-late 1990s. Korn were already gigantic. Limp Bizkit were inexplicably selling a lot of records and Slipknot were on their way there. Inventive bands such as Deftones were lumped in and there were a ton of bands following in the wake — groups that included Coal Chamber, Spineshank, Static-X, Mushroomhead, Mudvayne, Drowning Pool, and Soil.

In retrospect it’s easy to be dismissive about the whole thing but, as with any scene, there were gems buried in there, most of whom were quick to say that they didn’t want to be labelled nu-metal at all. American-Armenian band System of a Down were definitely one of those.

Formed in 1994 Glendale, a city within Los Angeles with a large Armenian population, System of a Down were clearly a very different proposition right from the get-go. The band, consisting of Serj Tankian, Daron Malakian, Shavo Odadjian, and John Dolmayan, recorded a couple of demos which would find their way to Rick Rubin. The uber-producer signed them to American/Columbia Records, their self-titled debut album dropped in 1998, and things really took off.

Photo credit: Hoebele

Again, the trouble with the genre label nu-metal (much like punk and grunge among others before it) was that anything released around that time, at the heavier end of the spectrum, that was tough to define in the media, would be thrown into the crowd. But there’s really very little connecting System of a Down to Limp Bizkit besides some loud guitars and, in the case of SOAD, a vague hip-hop influence. 

These guys were not goofing off. The genocide of the Armenian people, carried out by the Ottoman Empire between 1914 and 1923, though only recently truly recognized as an historical atrocity, has naturally been a thematic source for them. An horrific well of awful inspiration:

“A whole race, genocide

Taken away all of our pride

A whole race, genocide

Taken away

Watch them all fall down

Revolution

The only solution

The armed response

Of an entire nation

Revolution, the only solution

We’ve taken all your shit

Now it’s time for restitution.”

System of a Down “P.L.U.C.K.”

“We’ve been given a stage that most Armenians don’t have and it’s not something you’re gonna learn in your history books, so we go around the history books and educate people about something that happened in our culture,” Malakian told the author in 2018. “It’s something I continue to do as a writer and I think Serj does in his own way as well, even away from System of a Down.”

Elsewhere on that first album the band were digging into other themes, including the folly of religion.

“Had an out of

Body experience

The other day

Her name was Jesus

And for her everyone cried (x3)

Try her philosophy (x3)

You die for her philosophy (x3)

Crossed and terrored

Ravages of architecture

Lend me thy blades

We’re crossed and terrored

Ravages of architecture

Hoist around the spade.”

–System of a Down – “Suite-Pee”

Yeah, it was very clear early on that these guys were working on a different level to the Coal Chambers of this world — this was more about intellect than testosterone. 

The second album, 2001’s Toxicity, is arguably their masterpiece. From track one, “Prison Song” saw them going after the for-profit prison system in the United States, as well as the wretched and failed “war on drugs.”

“Following the rights movements you clamped on with your iron fists

Drugs became conveniently available for all the kids

Following the rights movements you clamped on with your iron fists

Drugs became conveniently available for all the kids

I buy my crack, I smack my bitch 

Right here in Hollywood

Nearly two million Americans are incarcerated

In the prison system, prison system of the U.S.”

System of a Down – “Prison Song”

Photo credit: Chatsam

“System made its name not having to conform or change from what we are,” Malakian said. “I never had to write under that kind of… someone telling me what direction to take. I’m pretty tough on myself as a writer. There’s plenty of stuff that I keep working on because I don’t think it’s quite there yet. I’m really difficult on myself when it comes to self-editing, and even when I would take a song into System, I had played that song for two years at least to myself before I take it in to the band. There were times where I didn’t have lyrics for a verse, so Serj would come in and write.”

Steal This Album followed in 2002, and then three years later they released the Mezmerize and Hypnotize albums six months apart. The former featured yet another (necessary) anti-war anthem, “BYOB (Bring Your Own Bombs).”

“Why do they always send the poor?

Barbarisms by barbaras

With pointed heels

Victorious victorious kneel

For brand new spankin’ deals

Marching forward hypocritic and

Hypnotic computers

You depend on our protection

Yet you feed us lies from the tablecloth

Everybody’s going to the party, have a real good time

Dancing in the desert, blowing up the sunshine.”

–System of a Down – “BYOB”

It’s sad that those 2005 albums remain the band’s most recent. They still play live together but can’t agree on a direction when it comes to new material. So we have
to be content with Malakian’s Scars on Broadway project and Tankian’s solo material. But this band is important and we hope that one day they’ll get their shit together again.

“System of a Down have a very special place in alternative, rock, and metal history,” David Benveniste, their manager, said. “They have an extremely fervent fan base who appreciate the importance of their cultural impact, and their industry accomplishments are very apparent.”