Hear Serj Tankian guest on new version of The HU’s Black Thunder
Watch the video for The HU’s new version of Black Thunder, which features guest vocals from System Of A Down’s Serj Tankian and Bad Wolves’ DL.
From their 1998’s self-titled debut to 2005’s Hypnotize, we rank the greatest songs from System Of A Down.
They might’ve managed only five studio albums in a short seven-and-a-bit year stretch between June 1998 and November 2005, but such is the level of consistent quality, quirkiness and genre-shaping innovation from Los Angeles quartet System Of A Down that it’s truly difficult to narrow their catalogue down to just 20 songs. From 1998’s earthquaking self-titled debut and 2001’s era-defining masterpiece Toxicity to 2002’s pirate-hijacked Steal This Album! and 2005’s towering sister releases Mezmerize and Hypnotize, there was constant cutting-edge evolution, but also a singularity of sound that even their most esteemed peers could never hope to touch.
Across the years since, the band have resurfaced and departed again and again. Vocalist Serj Tankian’s solo work and contributions alongside Tom Morello on Axis Of Justice, bassist Shavo Odadjian’s AcHoZeN, and guitarist Daron Malakian’s stunning Scars On Broadway (sometimes featuring drummer John Dolmayan) have shown flashes of brilliance, but the old chemistry has never fully been rekindled.
Hope endures, but while we’re holding out for that new album to change the game all over again, here’s our definitive Top 20 to keep everyone busy arguing in the meantime…
The second single from fourth album Mezmerize is, at first, a typically impenetrable composition, full of ‘ghosts’, ‘sweet berries ready for two’ and a swirling chorus of la la las… Dig in a little, though, and its reckoning on the possibility of an afterlife – and how people use religion to come to grips with that sweet hereafter – is actually one of their most profound. That time-signature jumping musicality – switching from whispered acoustic to crashing electric – was some of the most thrillingly dynamic of SOAD's later output.
Proud Armenian-Americans, SOAD have often been at their most bracing when fuelled by outrage at the Armenian Genocide of 1914-1923 by the Turkish Ottoman government at the time – and the lack of historical acknowledgement in the century after. An acronym for "Politically Lying Unholy Cowardly Killers", P.L.U.C.K. is one of the earliest and most potent examples, with their classic balance of staccato attack and earworm melody deployed to cutting effect. It also contains some of the band’s most straightforward lyrics: ‘A whole race, genocide / Taken away all of our pride … Revolution / The only solution / The armed response / Of an entire nation!’
This two-and-a-half minute nugget that crops up as the third track on fifth album Hypnotize initially feels like a clichéd throwaway about the perils of the rock'n'roll lifestyle filtered through SOAD’s characteristically surrealist lens. Daron’s explanation of the song casts it in a more tragic/darkly comic light, however. Driving home in the dark one night, the guitarist accidentally ran over a rabbit. Overcome with guilt, he named the furry figure Rock ‘N Roll and decided to write a song in his memory. Gleefully overwrought lyrics like, ‘So I felt like the biggest asshole’ and, ‘Eat all the grass that you want / Accidents happen In the dark’ suddenly feel a damn-sight more transparent.
‘PSYCHO, GROUPIE, COCAINE, CRAZY!’ The 13th track on Toxicity features one of System’s most instantly recognisable intros, building from a low rumble into a rampant schizoid pogo and towering Serj chorus. Interpretations of the lyrics have seen the song either as a broad reckoning on the inherently broken nature of the human condition and the need to escape (‘So you want the world to stop / Rushing to watch your spirit fully drop…’) or a narrow message that groupies don’t need to trade sex for access to bands (‘So you want to see the show / You really don't have to be a ho…’). The beauty is that it’s both of those things and so much more.
Opening with an appropriately needling guitar motif before exploding into a full-blown heads-down attack, the second song on Toxicity is 3:13 of clobbering volume and dissonant intrigue. Interpretations have varied wildly, from the obvious understanding that it’s a lament of the self-destruction caused by substance abuse to the more abstract reading that it’s about the assassination of South African Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd in 1966. With its metaphorical description of a controlling parasite (‘My tapeworm tells me what to do You / My tapeworm tells me where to go…’), we’d bet they’d been reading Irvine Welsh’s grubby classic Filth, released just three years earlier.
The first track on System Of A Down’s self-titled debut was an early benchmark for their schizoid sound, their progressive politics, their unbending conviction. Performed live, the song has been preceded by the quick quip, “Here’s a song about absolutely nothing!” That “nothing” is a reference to organised religion, and the imagined authority figures by whose rule so many people lead their lives. ‘Lie naked on the floor,’ Serj sings, ‘And let the messiah / Go all through our souls / Die, like a motherfucker!’ Wilfully abrasive and caustically controversial, it is the sound of angry young men willing to be offensive in the face of a societal status quo that offended them.
Named after famed Los Angeles Lakers broadcasters Chick Hearn and Stu Lantz, the opening track to third LP Steal This Album! plays on Hearn’s catchphrase that a game in control was “in the refrigerator” but actually unfolds as a potent anti-consumerist message. Comparing the ability of advertisers to create an artificial need for their product (in this case, the infamous ‘pizza pie’) to the baseless compulsions of addicts looking for their next fix, it has become emblematic of their ability to smuggle socially relevant messages through their ostensibly absurdist lyrical treatments. ‘Pepperoni and green peppers / Mushrooms, olive, chives’ never sounded so unappetising…
The balls-out opening track (and unofficial airplay-only single) to Toxicity finds the band at their most ostentatiously political, picking up the baton dropped when their friends in Rage Against The Machine had disbanded the year before. A bludgeoning, juggernaut riff gives way to storming vocals challenging the American prison industrial system, and pointing the finger at a government largely responsible for the domestic proliferation of drugs yet whose prison system is half-populated by drug offenders. In case there was any doubt, they nail in concise factoids (‘Nearly two million Americans are incarcerated / In the prison system, prison system of the U.S.’, ‘The percentage of Americans in the prison system has doubled since 1985’, ‘All research and successful drug policies show that treatment should be increased / And law enforcement decreased while abolishing mandatory minimum sentences…’) to solidify a righteous statement right at the outset of their triple-platinum career-high.
The landmark eighth track from System’s debut LP is an anti-war anthem that casts the military-industrial complex (and broader political advocates for armed intervention) as members of an inevitably self-destructive death cult. Loaded with mistrust and xenophobia, Serj’s lyrics ramble and roll like the charismatic teachings of some false prophet as an incendiary composition explodes and settles like a bomb run and the ringing quiet of its aftermath. ‘Was it the riches, of the land / Powers of bright darkness / That lead the noble, to the east / To fight the heathens.’ Those words might’ve been written several years before the War On Terror and second Iraq conflict, but they still painfully perfectly skewered the jingoistic American mindset that would shape the first decade of the 21st century.
With a title that draws the vowels from "idealization", "illegalization", "liberalization", and "internalization", the eighth track from Steal This Album! could have been a relatively straightforward rebuke of the systemic structures that keep us oppressed, but actually unfolds as SOAD's most mind-boggling three minutes. ‘Peter's pecker picked another / Pickle bearing pussy pepper, Why / Meeting John at Dale's Jr / Winked an eye and point a finger … A former cop, undercover / Just got shot, now recovered, Why / Fighting crime, with a partner / Lois Lane, Jimmy Carter!’ Fans and critics have found hints to occult figurehead Aleister Crowley, the Ku Klux Klan and Knight Rider’s Kitt in there, but the song is best enjoyed as System’s most explosively abstract masterpiece.
System’s second fully-fledged reckoning on the Armenian Genocide (following 1998’s P.L.U.C.K.) marked their maturation both as songwriters and as political minds. The holy mountains of the title refer to the Armenian Highlands, which border Armenia and Turkey. Mount Ararat, on the Turkish side, is considered the "holy mountain", and a stark reminder of the genocide for many Armenians. The sombre undertone speaks of a people still longing for justice. When System hit the road for 2015’s Wake Up The Souls tour – marking the centenary of the slaughter – this was their opener every night.
System’s first-ever single remains one of their most gleefully unhinged offerings. ‘I'm not there all the time you know,’ Serj sings. ‘Some people, some people, some people / Call it insane, yeah they call it insane (sugar) / I play Russian roulette everyday, a man's sport / With a bullet called life, yeah, mama, called life (sugar).’ Married to a spring-loaded riff and delivered by face-painted outsiders, the song was inevitably pigeonholed into the rampant nu-metal subgenre, but from the one-of-a-kind delivery (spoken word rolling through barking rage and into outright death-growls) to the leftfield message ("Aspartame kills!") to Nathan Cox’s wildly politicised music video, it was evident to anyone with a head on their shoulders that these lads were something else.
One of System’s greatest talents was to rough-ride the changing times, remaining relevant without ever giving up their individuality. Violent Pornography was a key display of that in the Mesmerize/Hypnotize era, proving that they had transcended the nu-metal genre while also tapping into fears and doubts around the fledgling internet age. On face value, the song is a critique of the trend of the commodification of sex and increasingly brutal sexual depictions, struggling to keep up with the self-perpetuating demand stoked by online access to nightmare imagery. (Indeed, Hypnotize’s Vicinity Of Obscenity deals with just that.) On a deeper level, it’s about the role of TV, the internet and the demands of overwhelming consumerism in keeping the masses ignorant and docile. That it’s become a rock club favourite in the years since adds a further layer to its perverse brilliance.
If ATWA had cropped up on any album other than the packed-to-the-gills Toxicity, it would’ve surely been a hit single. Distilling everything great about SOAD into two minutes and 56 seconds of turbulent sound, we get one of their prettiest intros (‘Hey you, see me, pictures crazy / All the world I've seen before me passing by…’) running into a sledgehammer chorus (‘You don't care about how I feel / I don't feel it anymore!’) before the composition builds to its towering crescendo. Hell, there’s even a little mystique in there, with the title being an acronym for the Air, Trees, Water, Animals environmental movement headed by cult leader and convicted murderer Charles Manson.
Borrowing a song-title from Rainbow’s 1979 album Down To Earth, Lost In Hollywood is a twisted love/hate letter to the band’s hometown. Written (and largely performed) by guitarist Daron Malakian, it imagines a conversation with a newcomer to La La Land, warning them of the ‘phoney people’ and worn-down ‘maggots smoking fags out there on Sunset Boulevard’. Its soft-picked guitars and Serj’s woozy backing vocals make it one of the band’s most memorably haunting tunes. Stylistically, it also signposted the direction in which Daron would head with his excellent follow-up project Scars On Broadway. Proof that even those who’ve made it pack some poignant cautionary tales about the City Of Angels.
In many ways, the music of System Of A Down has often felt like the aural equivalent of ADHD. The title-track of Toxicity is the ultimate example of that: an impulsive, over-energised, scattershot reaction to ‘the toxicity of our city, of our city’. Daron’s circumspect guitar line is detonated by John and Shavo’s maniac rhythm section, with Serj’s virtuoso vocals taking us through gentle lulls and passages of outright mania. The heads-down riffage of the closing movement is some of the most uncompromising in their whole catalogue, with the closing declaration ‘When I became the sun / I shone life into the man's heart’ feeling like an audacious kiss-off from avant-garde artists stepping into the brightest of spotlights.
After the world-conquering success of Toxicity, the lead single from Mezmerize was pivotal in proving that System could reach deeper and further than even their most ardent fans had imagined. An openly politicised anthem B.Y.O.B. (Bring Your Own Bombs), confirmed that they weren’t going to shy away from big questions (‘Why don't presidents fight the war? / Why do they always send the poor?’) even as they were reaching for superstardom. More importantly, it drew more disparate blends of influence – pop, punk, R&B and extreme metal all at play – and combined them for what’s arguably their most commercially-palatable (and successful) track. Not bad for a banger with an opening verse as odd as ‘Barbarisms by Barbaras / With pointed heels / Victorious victorious kneel / For brand new spankin' deals!’ The 2005 Best Hard Rock Performance GRAMMY duly followed.
The third and final single from Toxicity (the album’s closer) was an extraordinary, understated masterpiece chock-full of philosophical complexity and creeping insidiousness that went on to become their first U.S. Mainstream Rock number one. A vocal showcase for Serj, the frontman’s existential observations are allowed to roll over a relatively minimalist, largely ambient composition that’s often been compared to Metallica's The Unforgiven for its waves of emotion. ‘Life is a waterfall,’ he sings. ‘We're one in the river And one again after the fall.’ Identity, ego and individuality are all dissected, reaching a powerful conclusion that perhaps it’s best to let go, into the flow. ‘When you lose small mind you free your life.’ Indeed.
System’s second-ever single was proof that – even from the start – they were capable of more than the chaotic schizo-metal that had drawn so many fans to their cause. A softer, but far more treacherous version of their vision, Spiders’ haunting melodies and skin-crawling motifs whiplashed listeners from the incomprehensibly spring-loaded agitprop of Sugar into a more cerebral, unsettling soundscape. Serj’s beguilingly poetic 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…’) had worked their way under your skin before their subject matter (internal unrest, mind control) became apparent. The track’s selection for the Scream 3 soundtrack was an early sign of their ability to infiltrate the mainstream with even the darkest, most challenging sounds.
Utter genius so often sounds like absolute gibberish. On first listen, the lyrics to System’s signature song could feel utterly farcical. If not, of course, for the runaway momentum that leaves if feeling like a heavier, post-millennial version of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody or any number of tripped-out Beatles tracks. Originally titled Self-Righteous Suicide, it still managed to deliver its edgy, self-destructive references as the hit single while the world slipped into turmoil immediately post-9/11. Daron has since explained that the song is a hectic examination of the changing views on public figures when they pass away (the “deserved” death of an addict compared to the “heroic” acts of a martyr) but that’s now of far less consequence than it’s genre-leaping, mainstream-levelling appeal. Fast approaching a billion views on YouTube, this remains the crossover metal anthem of the 21st century, still as unattainably influential today as it was back then.
Watch the video for The HU’s new version of Black Thunder, which features guest vocals from System Of A Down’s Serj Tankian and Bad Wolves’ DL.
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