On Mezmerize, System of a Down pushed nu-metal to its limits
Originally released: 17 May 2005
System of a Down were never going to bow out quietly. In 2005, the Los Angeles-based group were at the height of their powers, having risen to the top of the metal world and occasionally the charts with their unique blend of nu-metal, Armenian folk and fiercely anti-war, often bizarre lyrics. But the band had made a lot of enemies on the way. Their songs were banned from the radio and just two years before they’d attracted the ire of many Americans after releasing an anti-Iraq war music video directed by Michael Moore. Yet even for a band as prone to taking potentially career-derailing risks as System, releasing what would be their final album in two halves, six months apart, seemed like a weird move.
Supposedly split in two to cater to the dwindling attention spans of the iPod generation, Mezmerize/Hypnotize was already a dicey step for the Armenian-American band. Over 24 tracks the band and producer Rick Rubin pushed the limits of a sound that had been teetering on the edge of insanity for the best part of a decade. Simultaneously heavier and more folk-driven than any of their previous records, the band opened themselves to twice as much backlash and then doubled down on it. By the end of 2005, both Mezmerize and Hypnotize would be certified platinum.
In particular, Mezmerize – the first half of the album – seems in constant danger of the wheels falling off. After the misleadingly gentle welcome of Soldier Side Intro, the album blindsides the listener with guitarist Daron Malakian screaming “why do they always send the poor?” in beyond-falsetto register. From there, singer Serj Tankian – who surely could have been an opera singer in an alternate timeline – takes the listener on a march involving “hypnotic computers” parties in the desert and a plot to break into Fort Knox, and that’s just on first track B.Y.O.B.
The album progresses through the obscene boasting of Cigaro, the infectious folk of Radio/Video and the one-two punch of This Cocaine Makes Me Feel Like I’m on This Song – truly one of the worst nu-metal song titles in a crowded field – and Violent Pornography. We emerge, dazed and uncertain of our whereabouts, into the hallucinogenic Old School Hollywood, a song about an all-star baseball game which Malakian took part in, alongside Frankie Avalon and Tony Danza.
Nu-metal, by any standards, is a silly genre of music. Full of grown men in boiler suits, masks and white dreadlocks, it’s no surprise many of its luminaries became parodies of themselves. Not so with System, who used the frenetic nature of their music to raise awareness of the Armenian genocide, from their first release for a 1997 compilation Hye Enk, or “we’re Armenian”, through to tracks like Hypnotize’s Holy Mountains.
While it might be easy to scoff at some of its more on-the-nose moments, there’s little doubt that Tankian and Malakian mean every word they sing, scream or yell. Malakian, who had family living in Iraq at the time of the album’s creation, explained to Launch Magazine that it was “probably the toughest time in my whole life”, explaining that “For one month I didn’t know if a bomb dropped on my grandmother’s house. It brought out a lot of good material – not necessarily political music, just emotional music.”
While Toxicity, the record that launched the band to international acclaim, is rightly hailed as the group’s best, it’s their final album, the first half in particular, that showcases System’s full range; at once irreverent, incredibly sincere and totally uncompromised. It’s no wonder that, despite reuniting for a run of live shows and recording “more than a dozen” new tracks in recent years, they’ve never been able to follow it up.