System Of A Down: Every Album Ranked From Worst To Best
For a brief time there, around the turn of the century, System Of A Down were one of the biggest and arguably the single most important metal band in the world. They might have been lumped in with the nu-metal set, but their politicised, idiosyncratic and frequently barking mad noise sounded like no-one else on the planet. It certainly didn’t sound like something built for mainstream consumption, but three of their five studio albums would go on to debut at Number One in the U.S. album charts as the band exploded all around the world.
Although SOAD have toured sporadically over the past decade – and should have been headlining Download this weekend, of course – a much-anticipated and occasionally teased sixth album has never materialised. So that’s it. Just five albums, one of which was a platter of leftovers (sort of) and another two of which were essentially different slices of a double album.
It’s worth noting that, despite the unconventional genesis of some of the individual entries, there isn’t a single duff album in that compact back catalogue. This ranking doesn’t go from awful to good, but rather from still-pretty-bloody-good-thank-you-all-the-same to brilliant. Who knows whether we’ll ever get that elusive sixth record, but for now here are all System Of A Down’s albums ranked from worst to best…
Despite being released six months apart, Mezmerize and Hypnotize were both written and recorded at the same time. Which does beg the question of why Mezmerize hit so much harder than its companion piece. Hypnotize – which currently stands as System Of A Down’s last official release – certainly isn’t terrible. The buzzsaw energy of Attack makes for a great opener and the emotive closer Soldier Side (‘They were crying when their sons left / God is wearing black’) remains one of the band’s most underrated moments. In between there are more standout songs, but they’re peppered with one too many forgettable tracks and a general slump towards the album’s end. And the serving of ‘Banana terracotta terracotta pie’ on Vicinity Of Obscenity sounds like a Mighty Boosh outtake in a bad way, proving that even for SOAD there was (or should have been) a limit to the silliness.
Steal This Album! (2002)
This would probably be the choice of many fans over Hypnotize for the band’s least-good album, but its ramshackle, disjointed nature – coupled with the manner it came into being – lends it a sense of don’t‑give-a-flying-one fun. Back when illegal downloading trumped streaming, a bunch of files appeared on the web under the guise of Toxicity II. The band gathered the material and released it in better quality format under the only-partly-joking title Steal This Album!. Debate still rages about whether the songs were a collection of cast-offs or, as the band have claimed, top-notch tracks that simply didn’t fit Toxicity. Serj Tankian has declared it his favourite System album and, while we wouldn’t go that far, there’s a spontaneous sense of joy to the stuttering verses and chanted chorus of I‑E-A-I-A-I‑O and a genuinely unsettling feel to Mr Jack. It’s patchy, certainly, but still well worth revisiting.
Of the decidedly non-identical twins born in 2005, Mezmerize was the one that got the looks. Lead single B.Y.O.B. was a suitably explosive introduction at the time, proving protest could be sexy as that slinky ‘Everybody’s going to the party…’ hook snaked around raw, jagged aggression and lyrics skewering the Iraq War. It’s remained one of the band’s most recognisable anthems, but the likes of Question!, Violent Pornography and Lost In Hollywood are almost as good – if not quite as iconic. Cigaro demonstrates how to do monstered-up Primus wackiness without tipping completely into parody, and there’s a sense of controlled chaos and consistency here that isn’t always quite so apparent. The only real downside to Mezmerize is that Hypnotize was ever-so-slightly disappointing by comparison.
System Of A Down (1998)
This was System Of A Down’s explosive introduction to the world at large; crunching riffs, sinuous shapes, kombucha mushroom people and all. Korn had already given ’90s metal a much-needed shot in the arm and 1998 was the year nu-metal went mainstream, but, while there were plenty of uninspired chancers just looking to follow the leaders, SOAD were very much their own beast. Serj Tankian’s acrobatic vocals were leagues away from the standard monochrome bark and the same can be said from the ever-shifting patterns, Armenian folk motifs and those cartoonish squalls and flourishes that guitarist Daron Malakian once memorably described to Kerrang! as ‘quacky’. System never sounded quite so raw and heavy as they did on their debut, and songs like Sugar and Suite-Pee would remain all-time greats… but there was still better to come.
Yes, it’s the obvious choice but we’re not going to be contrary just for the sake of it. The self-titled debut was heavier and Steal This Album! was quirkier, but Toxicity took everything that was great about System Of A Down and moulded it into a compact, near-perfect beast of an album. Opener Prison Song remains a sharp and focused burst of anger, driven by those crunching riffs and a barrage of statistics; the lyrics more direct and utilitarian than the oblique dadaism of the debut. There’s still a streak of dark poetry running through Toxicity though and, unlike LA’s other great political dissidents Rage Against The Machine, a surreal sense of humour. There was also a sense that the music could go anywhere, from the anthemic crunch of Chop Suey! to the eerie sway of Aerials and the hidden track Arto, featuring traditional instruments and a guest appearance from folk and jazz multi-instrumentalist Arto Tunçboyacıyan. Nearly 20 years on it still sounds as fresh, exciting and – sadly when it comes to the politics – as relevant as ever.
Catch System Of A Down on Download TV this Sunday (June 14) as part of the virtual festival. Find out more on the Download website.
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