Revisiting System of a Down's chaotic, anti-fascist debut album 20 years after its release

Abhinav Jai Singh

Jun,30 2018 16:14:43 IST

System of a Down's self-titled debut studio album was a confusing piece of art. At the time of its release, on 30 June 1998 (exactly 20 years ago today), the rock and heavy metal scene was dominated by the big names in nu-metal. Incorporating hip-hop into the familiar aggressive, brooding style of metal, nu-metal bands like Limp Bizkit, Korn and Coal Chamber became the flag-bearers of mainstream heavy metal. With Limp Bizkit's Three Dollar Bill, Y'all, Korn's Follow the Leader, and Coal Chamber's eponymous studio album gaining widespread mainstream success around the same time, System of a Down were destined to be piled into the nu-metal category. The band itself was strongly against getting pigeonholed into any particular sound. Twenty years later, SOAD have achieved what they'd set out to do.

System of a Down/Image from Twitter.

System of a Down/Image from Twitter.

The sheer amount of disdain for authority in their songs required System of a Down to be as aggressive, hostile and forceful as possible. Channeling anger and hatred, and conjuring vivid images of gory violence was nothing new for the metal genre, but what System of a Down did with their debut album was kick-start a style of music that can never be replicated.

System of a Down were woke way before being woke was a thing.

The four band members—Serj Tankian (vocals), Daron Malakian (guitar, vocals), Shavo Odadjian (bass, backing vocals), and John Dolmayan (drums)—saw their home country of the United States of America through the eyes of a 'woke' human being. The glittering promised land that the US was touted to be was, for them, a honey-trap meant to delude and sedate people. System of a Down is a highly politically-charged album with vague, ambiguous lyrics employing multiple hidden messages, word-plays, metaphors, characters and plot-lines.

The music on System of a Down is volatile and angry. The songs are chaotic yet beautiful; peppered with spontaneous bursts of energy with the band going absolutely berserk. System of a Down is full of tumultuous brutality, as well as soft, intricate sections with a dreamy feel.

System of a Down album cover/image from Facebook.

System of a Down album cover/Image from Facebook.

On opening track 'Suite-Pee', the band delves into the controversial topic of pedophilia in the Catholic church. 'Suite-Pee', like many other SOAD songs, is dead-set against authority. It criticises the ease with which people allow themselves to be manipulated by religion. The song starts with a playful guitar riff before turning into a banger of heavy metal track. This unpredictability in SOAD's music–the way they transition from frivolous sounding riffs to an onslaught of dense, tactful metal–ended up becoming its hallmark.

The following track, 'Know', gives a glimpse of how raw, unrestrained and powerful Serj Tankian's voice can be. Tankian screams, howls, growls and sings with impeccable proficiency. On 'Sugar', Tankian modulates his voice in a way that is both hilarious and disturbing. 'Sugar'–a song about the vicious, predatory state of the media and people's ever-increasing dependence on external stimuli and substances–ends with a deafening crescendo signalling the inevitable doom of humanity. The following tracks, 'Suggestions' and 'Spiders', are two of the best songs SOAD ever recorded. While 'Suggestions' is an ominous track about the impending corruption of all forms of power, 'Spiders' is a grief-stricken song about a girl, June, going through a procedure to insert a v-chip in her brain.

The meaning of a System of a Down song is seldom apparent. 'Soil', a song dedicated to a friend of the band who committed suicide, is blunt and straight-forward, and yet leaves no clues as to what the song is about. 'War' on the other hand–a song denouncing reasons behind major wars in history–is more direct in its meaning. Lyrical themes stretch across spectrum on System of a Down, with 'Mind' being about thought-control and brainwashing; polka-oriented 'Peephole' about drug use; and 'CUBErt' about how easily people cower before authority.

The final track, titled 'P.L.U.C.K. (Politically Lying, Unholy, Cowardly Killers)', directly addresses the Turkish and American governments, and highlights the 1915 genocide of 1.5 million Armenian people. The members of System of a Down, all of whom are of Armenian descent, have fervently raised the issue of The Armenian Genocide–which is denied by the Turkish government to this day and not recognised by the USA–throughout their careers.

System of a Down's album cover is the poster designed by artist John Heartfield for the Communist Party of Germany during the Third Reich. The text on the original poster reads, "5 fingers has a hand! With these 5 grab the enemy!". This is what System of a Down's music is primarily about. The band's music is devoid of moral superiority and the air of self-righteousness. With their music, System of a Down point out to the obvious: It is dangerously easy for masses to be strayed towards the path of death and destruction for the benefit of a few.

System of a Down's approach was rather radical. The bandmembers were anti-establishment, but not like the punk bands. They were untamed and brazen, but not quite like Rage Against the Machine. System of a Down were prophetic; and their art was steeped in messages of a bleak future. There was no doubt that humans keep repeating the same mistakes they always have, but they could redeem themselves once they break free of useless dogmas, compulsive servitude, and an unfounded allegiance to selfish ideologies.

System of a Down weren't blatant about the message behind their music. People who loved the sound made an effort to understand the lyrics. Those who understood the lyrics got behind the band's message. There were no attempts to preach what's right, or to make themselves the in-thing. Twenty years later, the chaotic cacophony of System of a Down sounds clearer than ever before.

Updated Date: Jun 30, 2018 16:14 PM