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lucifer_sam 08-03-2008 02:40 PM

Back to the River Aras: A Collapsed History of System of a Down
System of a Down is today one of the most recognizable metal bands, and were certainly among the most popular. They were strange beyond strange, and their music existed as a huge departure from conventional metal bands. Many songs from their five studio albums achieved radio play and mainstream success, and their popularity abounded. However, System's music and intent was largely misinterpreted. It is my wish to relieve some of the misrepresentation clouding their legacy and pay homage to one of the most unique metal acts ever.

Soil and Untitled Demos: The Early Years

System's incarnation lies in the formation of a then relatively unknown band: Soil (paid homage to in the likewise titled song from their debut album). They were formed during and at the school which Daron Malakian and Serj Tankian attended. Daron played lead guitar and Serj lead vocals. Two other members graced their presence, Dave Hakopyan (current bassist for Mt. Helium) and drummer Domingo Laranio. Afterwards, Shavo Odadjian joined as a rhythm guitarist. The project survived three years of tinkering, one recording (a live jam session) and one actual show before disbanding in 1995. There are no surviving recordings.

Out of the ashes of Soil, three members rejoined to form System of a Down (Serj, Daron, and Shavo). The band was named after a poem of Serj's, Victims of a Down. They acquired a drummer, Andy Khachaturian, and set to work on some of their earliest recordings. These early recordings were unreleased to the general public but contain snatches of the brilliance that was to come. System revealed their heavy thrash roots in very early versions of Mr. Jack and Metro (a Berlin cover). Their deep metal roots gave way to distorted thrash riffs and occasional structured melodies. System derived the most influence from Slayer. Indeed, Daron borrowed much of his technique from Tom Araya, while Serj favored his own trademark staccato scream.

After touring heavily around Los Angeles between 1995 and 1997, System recorded a few more demo tapes (much which would make it onto their first LP) and replaced their drummer with John Dolmayan. System earned a cult following and a great reputation for their live acts (known as The Dark Red Experience). They soon secured gigs at notable establishments like Whiskey-A-Go-Go and The Viper Room, which led to exposure to new crowds and a small producer named Rick Rubin. They were quickly signed to Columbia Records and went on from their to record their debut album.

Now, at this point, the LA metal act was comprised of four members: Serj (lead vocals), Daron (lead guitar), Shavo (bass guitar and rhythm guitar) and John (drums, percussion). They were all Armenian-American, and they soon incorporated some unique Middle Eastern folk into their metal acts. However, System of a Down has always objected to being typecasted as "an Armenian metal band," because they were an American metal band who just happened to be of Armenian descent. Most of their material is derived from thrash acts like Slayer and Anthrax, not Armenian music.

Up next: the eponymous of eponymous debuts.

Son of JayJamJah 08-03-2008 07:44 PM

Always Great to see another discog thread. I hope you'll include Serj's solo album and the upcoming side project eventually. Looking forward to comparing your opinions on the album and more insightful notes and history.

lucifer_sam 08-03-2008 08:19 PM

Thanks, and I will make sure to cover Serj's album. You should check out Scars On Broadway's debut, for the time being. It's very good.

WWWP 08-04-2008 12:35 AM

Well done. They're definately in my top ten.

simplosys 08-04-2008 06:40 PM

nice band and yeah, their music was always a bit out there,if you know what I mean. By the way, that is a lot of info, some I did not even know until I read your review! :)

lucifer_sam 08-04-2008 09:27 PM

"Open your eyes, open your mouths, close your hands and make a fist."
Debut of a Titan

System of a Down (1998)

For the majority of people living outside Los Angeles (and the majority of people living in Los Angeles too), System of a Down’s debut album was a huge surprise. It was well publicized and critically reviewed thanks in part to Rick Rubin’s involvement in production of the album. For the majority of listeners (metalheads included), System of a Down was a welcome reprieve. Up until this period, thrash was still the dominant metal genre, and was to be for some time. System provided a huge breath of fresh air with their debut album, impressing metal fans with their unflattering scratchy riffs and varying levels of fetus-deafening vocals. Two singles from the album, “Sugar” and “Spiders,” saw significant radio play. System of a Down was a success both commercially and critically, and showcased a level of metal-heaviness that was unparalleled by any of their subsequent albums.

The album opens with a scratchy lick in “Suite-Pee” and rebounds with a trademark System thrash riff. From the beginning, the listener is introduced to Serj Tankian’s bifurcated vocals: light and melodic at first and escalating to a heart throbbing wail punctured by animalian screams. The album progresses in vigor when John Dolmayan’s chaotic intensity is displayed in full effect thereafter in "Know." Distortion and feedback on Daron Malakian’s lead guitar provides a chilling atmospheric sound while Serj delivers howls of self-righteous malice. Transitions between melodic and metallic riffs leave the listener refreshed. The vocals get increasingly more tortured with the presence of Serj’s nasal-infused urgence. The sudden appearance of sheer metal soon resounds. “Sugar”s incredible intensity and melodic structure leave the listener agog, and the coda at the end attests its power.

Upon the appearance of “Suggestions,” we are first introduced to System’s unabashed melodic nature. This is the first among many treasures of Middle Eastern folk found in System’s music. But the song doesn’t lend itself to being weak. After the intro and verse, the song collapses into a structured thrash riffs at the chorus. Daron’s guitar sings at the bridge, offering a haunting composition. The real gem of the album, “Spiders,” follows, introducing a System that none expected. It is structured around a small fingerpicking riff delivered by Daron, but builds with intensity upon Serj’s powerful vocals and dark lyrics.


The piercing radiant moon,
The storming of poor June,
All the life running through her hair,
Approaching guiding light,
Our shallow years in fright,
Dreams are made winding through my head.

Thereafter, the album regresses into more thrash-oriented rock. "DDevil" brings strength into the album with its twisted lyrics and booming double bass intro. In “Soil,” System pays homage to a band that once was. The vocal breaks in the song forecast future works like “Psycho” (Toxicity), while one of the earliest solos of Daron (a particularly good one) foreshadows the genius that was to come. Towards the end of the song, Serj explodes with emotion with his moribund inquiry:


The album grows darker in “War?” when System questions the genocide of their Armenian ancestors. Finally, System of a Down breaches the banal structure of their normal songs in “Mind.” A small bass intro provided by Shavo Odadjian with whispered vocals ascends to a mind-scattering exploration of one’s most inner thoughts. Throughout the song, there are sparse quiet moments that interrupt the otherwise incendiary music. Then, the album grows frightening in “Peephole,” a revelation into System’s progressive exploits, with the repeated question, “don’t you ever get stuck in the sky?” Afterwards, the double bass schedule resumes in “CUBErt,” which frankly doesn’t bring anything new to the album. However, this modest disappointment is redeemed by the following track, “Darts,” which draws the listener in with its hypnotic bass and beats the living shit out of his ears with Serj’s apocalyptic growls. The last track on the album, “P.L.U.C.K.,” may be the heaviest of the album. Intervening periods of silence and screams open it, followed by an attractive riff. The verse is melodic, the first chorus enormously heavy, but the second, the second chorus is chilling. One of the only tracks on the album where Daron provides backup vocals effectively seals one of the most chaotic metal albums ever:


The plan was mastered and called Genocide
Took all the children and then we died,
The few that remained were never found,
All in a system, Down.
System of a Down brought so much to the table with their self-titled album. Heavy riffs, growling vocals, and intervening instances of melodies: it was all there. There was too much contained in this album to categorize it as any particular genre of metal, a fate that System has had to suffer for years. They were so off-the-cusp, so unique, and to pigeonhole them as any particular label is ignorant and insulting to what they accomplished. This album remains a mainstay of modern metal because of its huge impact – not upon other bands, but upon SOAD themselves. They never were as heavy on any other album, but that is a fact that I relish, not regret. System of a Down grew and developed into a completely different entity by their last album.

During this time, System became well-known to metal-maniacs, but still relatively unknown to the general public. They toured extensively with their predecessor and idol Slayer following the album’s debut. They also performed at Ozzfest, which drew a great number of metal fans to their unique brand of metal. It was following this that System went back to the studio in preparation for their next (and perhaps most widely recognized) musical feat: Toxicity.

Son of JayJamJah 08-04-2008 11:04 PM

Ozzfest System late 1990's was epic. "Spiders" remains an epic tack and among my top five favs of theirs. Strong, creative review; cool to see all the personal styles of review everyone does here.

Overall I was a bit disappointed with the album revisiting it; a lot of good songs but few that made me want to hear them again and again. Still when I first heard SOAD you're dead on saying they were "a breath of fresh air" their melodic and eclectic nature makes them endlessly entertaining and their classical and professional training coupled with passionate dedication make them a band worth celebrating, so glad you took a chance and started this thread.

jackhammer 08-05-2008 03:38 AM

Great reviews. The only I have heard (and own) by SOAD is the obvious: Toxicity and there is some great work on there. I may check out their debut some time.

Piss Me Off 08-05-2008 03:44 AM


Originally Posted by JayJamJah (Post 503861)
Ozzfest System late 1990's was epic. "Spiders" remains an epic tack and among my top five favs of theirs. Strong, creative review; cool to see all the personal styles of review everyone does here.

Overall I was a bit disappointed with the album revisiting it; a lot of good songs but few that made me want to hear them again and again. Still when I first heard SOAD you're dead on saying they were "a breath of fresh air" their melodic and eclectic nature makes them endlessly entertaining and their classical and professional training coupled with passionate dedication make them a band worth celebrating, so glad you took a chance and started this thread.

Thirded, they're one of those great bands who have their own unique sound that anyone would find difficult to replicate.

jackhammer 08-05-2008 01:50 PM

This thread is deemed good enough to make it into Editor's Picks. Keep it up.

lucifer_sam 08-06-2008 08:25 PM

The Armenian Genocide
Partially to take a bit more time to review an extremely complex album like Toxicity, I will not be reviewing their next album now. Instead, I feel the need to place a contribution to the overall identity of System of a Down by examining one of the issues that remains centric to their being: the Armenian genocide. Many System songs, even early ones like “War?” are centered around this tender subject. Many of their works and much of their persona have been misinterpreted. It is certainly time that people set their misguided views of the band aside and realize that System’s outspoken political anger wasn’t the flippant rage of Zack de la Rocha. I will not try to make this into a history lesson about the Armenian genocide, but its relevance to understanding what System of a Down stood for.

You can read about the Armenian genocide in full here.

Armenia is a small country nestled into the Caucasus Mountains and highlands, landlocked and between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. While the primary religion of surrounding nations is unequivocally Islam, Christianity dominates within Armenia. This disparity in religious beliefs was responsible for one of the worst (and yet, one of the least recognized) genocides in world history. But it didn’t start out as open war…

Once part of the mighty Ottoman Empire, Armenia was a small minority of people living east of what is now present-day Turkey. Today, the population of Armenians is approximately eight to ten million people. Of course, there is a bit of uncertainty because they were scattered across the world since the late nineteenth century. In the beginning of this ethnic hostility, it was simply a huge emergence of discrimination against Christians. Armenians were treated as second-class citizens. Towards the late nineteenth century, Sultan Abdul Hamid II began a disgraceful campaign to eradicate the Armenians for nationalistic purposes. In this campaign, 100,000-300,000 Armenians were killed. And it didn’t stop there.

After the Ottoman Empire officially became a constitutional monarchy, they took legal action against the Armenians to eradicate them from the Ottoman Empire altogether. Laws were passed to strip the Armenians from their possessions, which the government labeled as “abandoned.” By marking gross populations of Armenians as threats to the security of the Ottoman Empire, parliament was able to take martial action against the native Armenians, forcing them out in droves. Since any testimony against Muslims by Christians was rendered inadmissible by Turkish courts, the invading Turkish armies could do as they please – and they did just that. Millions of Armenians were forcibly expelled. Many were killed, women were raped, and their belongings pillaged by the armies.

During the deportation and extermination processes, Armenians were driven into the desert to wander across the borders. Frequently, militant factions of Turks would take Armenians into remote spots in the desert and massacre them en masse. Their justification for murdering the defenseless Armenians was simple: they believed them to be aiding the Russian military. It was obvious, however, that very few Armenians actually acted that way. During World War I (the Great War), over 500,000 Armenians were exterminated, and millions more exiled to the ends of the earth. In total, approximately one to one-and-a-half million Armenians were killed in what would be known as the Armenian genocide.

The repercussions of this atrocity are still haunting ancestors of the exiled Armenians today. To date, twenty-one countries recognize that the event could be classified as genocide. Not even all of the United States is in assent; forty-two states have adopted resolutions confirming it. This is especially difficult for ancestors of the atrocity to digest, since the Turkish government denies the event to this day. Many Armenians are very outspoken about this atrocity, especially Armenian-Americans like System of a Down.

It is vital when interpreting System’s musical work to understand that where they came from and what they stand for. They are Armenian-Americans. They were raised in (but shielded from) the shadow of Hollywood by their Christian, Armenian expatriate families. It is absolute trash to see them get censored for works like “Chop Suey!” (which people assumed glorified self-righteous suicide), when in reality System wasn’t Muslim or Arabic at all. The American population needs to learn what System of a Down stood for before they cast aspersions on their so-called “offensive” music.

Piss Me Off 08-07-2008 01:55 PM

Good post. The way censorship goes it does tend to be what the lyrics imply on the first read, no matter what circumstance the artists are coming from.

And you can file this as one of the many reasons i keep radios as far away from me as possible :)

lucifer_sam 08-14-2008 12:54 AM

"I don't think we sound like anybody else. I consider us System of a Down."
It has taken a LONG time to do and many, many listens to interpret System of a Down’s longest album. This album was my first full experience with System, and represents their best work to many fans. Critics may disagree with that assessment, but one thing is for sure: this was their most complex work.

Toxicity and Subsequent Success

Toxicity (2001)
Prison Song
Deer Dance
Jet Pilot
Chop Suey!

System of a Down grew from their heavy roots in their self-titled album and spent a significant amount of time in studio to produce one of the most eclectic metal albums ever: Toxicity. It was released on September 4, 2001, to general critical and popular praise. Three singles were released for the album, all which garnered significant radio play. If you were alive at the time and you didn’t hear “Chop Suey!” at least a few times, you were probably comatose. Despite the political backlash against System’s “subversive lyrics,” Toxicity remained relatively free of the subsequent political mire. The album debuted at #1 and has achieved multi-platinum status since.

Toxicity opens with perhaps the most politically charged song System ever recorded: “Prison Song.” It opens like an apocalyptic thriller, delivering powerful, heavy riffs at odd intervals while Serj Tankian plays the whispering narrator. After picking up in intensity, Serj’s snarls attack the listener while a spoken rebuke against the American penal system plays behind it. Shavo Odadjian’s very limited vocal work is given rein here as growling backup vocals before Serj finishes with melodic character. As the track fades into nonbeing, a swift fingerpicking riff yields yet another assault on the ears with “Needles.” John Dolmayan’s strong mechanical finesse is demonstrated early in the song with his chaotic drumming. During an interlude, Daron Malakian is given his first lead vocalization, providing dark imagery:


Im just sitting in my room
With a needle in my hand
Waiting for the tomb
Of some old dying man
Sitting in my room
With a needle in my hand
Waiting for the tomb
Of some old dying man
Following this, “Deer Dance,” a fan favorite, displays in full vigor Serj’s many abilities as a vocalist. One of Daron’s solos accompanies a glowing sitar which brings the emotion in Serj’s voice to a cusp, and then fades. Afterwards, “Jet Pilot” intervenes, which could at best be described as filler material; strong vocals and heavy metallic riffs keep the pace. “X” pursues this with fast tom drumming and Serj’s urgent screams (and a resurgence of his abominable howls). The album takes a new turn with System of a Down’s most widely recognized songs (and certainly a good one): “Chop Suey!” A small, four-chord acoustic intro yields to a simple electric riff, but it starts to build. John’s superb fills deliver an impetus while another electric guitar fosters the intensity still further. Accompaniment strings brew this until the intro breaks down into the metallic verse with unclenching ferocity. The verse is characteristic of System, but the chorus brings a sitar and piano (courtesy of Rick Rubin) into the mix. The song’s intensity builds further until the cataclysmic wails of Serj exclaim,


Father! Father! Father! Father!
Father, into your hand, I commend my spirit
Father, into your hand, why have you forsaken me?
In your eyes forsaken me?
In your thoughts forsaken me?
In your heart forsaken me?
Thereafter, Toxicity becomes an altogether different album, starting with the punctured vocals of “Bounce.” The track itself is a farce, with little meaning to the lyrics (“ with just one Pogo stick”), but stays true to the metal ethic. Dolmayan’s mechanical aptitude on tabla introduces “Forest,” a truly remarkable track. The lyrics are misleading and challenging, but the song represents an overall impressive songwriting effort by Daron and cogent drumming by John. Subsequently, Toxicity grows with progressive talents, incorporating sitars and twelve-stringed guitars to deliver a multiple-layered feel, such as “ATWA.” The track begins with a small riff broken by very melodic vocals by Serj and Daron. It soon breaks down after the intro, but retains the melodic nature well into Daron’s straightforward solo. The song dissolves after a later chorus into “Science,” the most spectacular song of the album. It begins with another thrash riff which yields to Serj’s powerful vocal performance. At the bridge, however, the song becomes an entirely different song, incorporating sitars, twelve-stringed guitars, and an Armenian folk singer before resuming its heavy nature, an impressive songwriting effort by Daron.

Next, another thrash riff/vocal attack drives the album forward with “Shimmy,” a trite and simple song. Shavo gets a chance to make the best of his bass work with a small bassline towards the end of the song. As it adjourns, another sitar is brought forth, but this time, it’s the sitar that drives the song in “Toxicity.” Dolmayan’s brilliant fills are exhibited time and time again, and this track really brings his presence to light. Serj accents the shimmering guitar and sitar by delivering his most melodic vocals before the song grows with intensity at the chorus and he offers some of System’s most metaphoric lyrics:


More wood for the fires, loud neighbors
Flashlight reveries caught in the headlights of a truck
Eating seeds as a pastime activity,
The toxicity of our city, of our city
The album ascends to glaring heights with the subsequent track, “Psycho.” As a small riff introduces the lyrics, Serj and John work in unison to deliver a staccato vocal and musical performance. The pre-chorus and chorus exhibit another of System’s metallic-to-melodic transitions, and again they are inflected by a sitar. The track takes a different path when Malakian’s guitar sings during an inspiring solo (accented by strings again), and closes as such. As System’s melodic composition draws to a close, they offer a new sitar intro in “Aerials,” which quickly becomes a melodic vocal effort by Serj and Daron accompanied by thrash riffs. The track increases in passion until the second chorus washes over with fruitful metallic ascension. Upon the last thirty seconds, the track closes by returning to the melodic vocal and sitar effort by Serj and Daron. There is a hidden track in Toxicity which can be accessed by skipping through a few minutes of silence. This is purely a Middle-Eastern folk song, given the name “Arto” (presumably because that was the artist that imparted his vocal efforts). It is nonetheless an excellent song which draws an incredibly complex album to a close.

Favorite Tracks: Science, Psycho, Deer Dance, ATWA
Favorite Verse: Hey you, see me, pictures crazy / All the world I’ve seen before me passing by / I’ve got nothing, to gain, to lose / All the world I’ve seen before me passing by
Rating: 4.25/5

Toxicity represented a major step forward for System of a Down, and remains the record for which they are most remembered. By spending more time in the studio, Daron was able to flex his progressive muscle, utilizing twelve-stringed guitars, sitars, as well as piano and string arrangements. The newest album reflected the band’s influences, steeped in Middle Eastern folk music. Rick Rubin’s excellent production on the album surpassed anything he had accomplished since his early Def Jam years, and the rest of the band was able to express their instrumental capabilities to the fullest.

System of a Down went on a tour with Slipknot following the success of Toxicity in late 2001. Their breakthrough success afforded them new fans and they earned a cult following across America. After the success of the tour, the band engaged a new tour (again, with Slipknot) and featuring Rammstein in 2002. While they toured, they recorded a little, and soon a few songs leaked onto the web, billed as tracks in Toxicity II. Although they were incomplete and yet to be mastered, the tracks were indeed part of a new project of System’s: Steal This Album!

mamanuthead 08-14-2008 07:48 AM

Enjoying this thread immensly, thanks! :yeah:

jackhammer 08-14-2008 02:51 PM

Good review of Toxicity. I feel you should check out the Canadian thrash band Voivod. Another band that approached Metal from a completely different angle. I may give Toxicity a blast later.

Piss Me Off 08-16-2008 07:12 AM

Jet Pilot filler? That's one of my faves! I think my fave has to be Shimmy, brilliant chorus which showed they were just as good with melodies as they were with riffs.

lucifer_sam 08-16-2008 05:54 PM

To each his own.

I listened to Steal This Album! three times today, think a few more will help me get a handle on it. I'm hoping my review will at least spark some discussion; it's a very eclectic album, even by System's standards.

Son of JayJamJah 08-17-2008 07:44 PM

Toxicity is probably my second pick from their discography. I really think the singles "Chop Suey, Aerials, and the Title track are very good and they drew me to this band and this album. They really did show their range with this one, although the next few albums would have even more fluid and melodic sounds. My rating would probably right about where your is if i gave as many listens. My only complaint is that there are a lot of so-so songs on the album, not bad, interesting, but they never really grew on me.

punkrawker07 12-15-2008 01:01 PM

great thread!! SOAD is one of my favorite bands. I even learned a few new things from you history of the band as well as the armenian genocide bit. i knew a lot of their lyrics had to do with political issues but i never really researched them at all. they are a great band producing great music album after album and i can't wait for them to get back together and do their next album but i think there will be a few years left before that. until then scars on broadway and serj will have to do. great info and a good read.

cillerbee 12-19-2008 04:10 PM

Awesome thread, thanks!

almauro 04-18-2009 05:25 PM

Toxicity is SOAD's masterpiece. Even though some songs may sound disparate, the album's final three songs tie it all together in a profoundly resonate way, IMO.

The Abominable Homan 06-18-2009 09:01 PM

Very nice thread, I'm looking forward to seeing how you feel about their recent music.

Antonio 06-20-2009 02:02 PM

can't wait for Steal This Album, my favorite SOAD album!!

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