Albums Of The Decade: System Of A Down – ‘Toxicity’
The day the freaks took over! Check out our other Albums of the Decade!
From the years 1988-2000, nobody touched Slayer live. You went out as support to Slayer, you died. You took Slayer out as support, you died. Quite simply, if you went anywhere near Slayer live, you would have your head shoved so far up your ass, you’d be wearing buttock earrings.
But something changed when the band came over to the UK on a co-headline slot with Sepultura. The bands brought over a support band whose album was only available on import at the time and who kicked the living piss out of both bands in spectacular style.
The drummer pounded out crazy rhythms while wearing a gas mask, the guitarist threw out Middle-Eastern tinged metal riffs that were schizophrenic and astounding in equal measure and the frontman had shades of Zack De La Rocha, Maynard James Keenan and Jello Biafra. Oh and he was dressed like an evil rabbi too.
System Of A Down arrived with all of the impact of a multi-coloured, nuclear bomb with their Rick Rubin-produced self-titled debut album. Fiercely political, heavy as hell and the most original band for far too long at that point, System were a cattle-prod to metals backside but even still, the band were treated as something of a novelty due to their overly wacky nature. ‘Sugar’ is a pretty decent example of that.
When ‘Toxicity’ arrived, not only did the band manage to keep their insane/genius elements, they injected hooks that made them worldwide superstars and one of the biggest rock bands on planet Earth.
First single ‘Chop Suey’ was not only an instant metal classic, it also showed how far the band had come in such a short-period of time. More melody, more metal and more madness.
The verses were vicious stabs of guitars and pianos (listen carefully and you can hear them) that combined perfectly with Serj Tankian’s rapid-fire screams and whispers. The chorus it gave way to, the incredible “why have you forsaken me?” section and the final 34 seconds remain some of the finest rock moments of this decade. By all intents and purposes, the song will remain a classic for the better part of our lifetimes.
A sizeable amount of credit for the band’s improvement has to go to the evil genius of guitarist, Daron Malakian. With the blending of subtle picking and thick slabs of heaviness on ‘ATWA’ and the punk rock fury meets Armenian-tinges on ‘Shimmy’, Malakian was taking his creativity to all sorts of new heights.
Perhaps Malakian’s greatest improvement came in the shape of his vocal contributions. “I buy my crack, I smack my bitch, right here in Hollywood” on ‘Prison Song’ (here live at Reading in 2001) was lunacy in the most inspired way and his vocal-gymnastics with Tankian were untouchable. ‘Aerials’ is probably the best melodic example (the verses and last 30 seconds are jaw-dropping moments) but there’s also the random noise-interaction on tracks like ‘Bounce’. Check this clip at 1:13 for what we’re talking about. Mad, innit?
Serj Tankian’s vocals also reached the pinnacle of their brilliance. His ability to create the kinds of vocal lines that are on ‘Jet Pilot’ and ‘Deer Dance’ are unequalled. Riding Malakian’s eccentricities and concocting vocal lines that are unshakably catchy but unbeilievably abstract is something that it can be argued that no other vocalist in music could have pulled off.
A band as unique and unsuited for mainstream consumption as System Of A Down should have no right to have a number one record but that’s what exactly what happened in the US with ‘Toxicity’ (the album was actually US number 1 when the 9/11 attacks occurred and ‘Chop Suey’ was subsequently taken off of many US radio stations due to its speak of ‘self-righteous suicide’). It was a stunning example of brilliance outweighing banality and the mainstream embracing a freak outsider, the record going on to sell an eye-watering 12 million copies worldwide.
System Of A Down went on to headline Download and Ozzfest on the back of ‘Toxicity’s success and when 2010 reformations were mentioned for next year’s Download, you voted in your droves for System Of A Down to be considered. Indeed, when Metal Hammer and Classic Rock held a poll of the greatest rock & metal albums of all-time, voted for by the readers of both magazines, ‘Toxicity’ was in the top 5 of that list. That’s the kind of regard this record is held in.
The metal world is a lot worse off without System Of A Down’s colourful and crazy brand of brutality. They remain on permenant hiatus and any reformation looks unlikely at the moment.