One thing about popular music is that it is catchy. The messages are often simple and fun. The music more of the bubble gum variety rather than metal. And pop music rarely, if ever, contains politically charged and controversial lyrical content and ideas. Pop music almost always is settled into well defined genres as well. Justin Bieber is undoubtedly R&B. Lil’ Wayne is squarely rap/hip-hop. Nickleback is assuredly alternative rock. Shania Twain is unmistakably country. But there are always exceptions to every rule. System of a Down is the exception to these rules.
They dated their roots back to 1992 in a band called Soil, which featured Serj Tankian on vocals and keyboards, Daron Malakian on vocals and guitar, Dave Hakopyan (who later played in The Apex Theory/Mt. Helium) on bass and Domingo “Dingo” Laranio on drums. Soil hired Shavo Odajian to be there manager and he eventually joined the band as a rhythm guitarist. In 1994, after only one live show, and one jam session recording, Hakopyan and Laranio left the band, feeling that it was not going anywhere.
After Soil, Malakin, Tankian and Odajian formed System of a Down (a.k.a. SOAD or simply System). Odajian switched from guitar to bass and the band hired Velvet Hammer Music and Management Group to handle their managerial duties. Ontronik “Andy” Khachaturian was recruited to play the drums; he, along with System’s other members, were alumni of Rose and AlexPilibosArmenianSchool. System of a Down made two demo tapes that never saw commercial release, Untitled 1995 Demo Tape and 1996’s Demo Tape 2. These tapes were released to the masses via file sharing networks. In 1997, they released final demo tape, Demo Tape 3. In mid 1997, drummer Khachaturian left the band because of a hand injury (he subsequently co-founded The Apex Theory). Khachaturian was replaced by John Dolmayan.
In June 1998, System of a Down released their debut album, System of a Down. The debut album featured the singles “Sugar” and “Spider”, both of which had accompanying videos. Another track from the album, “War?”, received a music video as well. Q Magazine gave System of a Down 4 out of 5 stars, stating “This remains an excellent starting point for this most curious band”. This debut album has been certified Platinum by the RIAA and peaked at number 124 on the Billboard 200 chart. The booklet for the album contained a message that read: “Announce your anthems on the ceiling. We dance, annexed by power. Casual neckties embrace, the hungry hunger further, images rule through the media, commercial Orwellianism, producing unveiled icebergs, running transparent electrical cables, curving string ensembles, witnessed by hangings from flagpoles of souls avenged by Dr. Clock. Fresh paint, naked melting figures mixing the revolution against T.V. sentencing, at the hands of brutal men and their military business world. Let us instigate the revolt, down with the system!”
Despite the tragic events of September 11, 2001, System of a Down’s second album, Toxicity was the band’s breakthrough record. Released on September 4, 2001, Toxicity had a monstrous debut, debuting number one on both the US and Canadian charts. he band have mentioned the ironic predicament of the album being released exactly one week before 9/11 on numerous occasions. The lead single, “Chop Suey!” was an instant hit, though soon after its release it was pulled from many radio stations due to it seemingly being insensitive to the events of 9/11. The song contains lyrics such as “(I don’t think you) trust in my self-righteous suicide.” The band still had constant radio airplay thanks to the albums other singles “Toxicity” and “Aerials”. In May 2006, VH1 listed Toxicity in the No.14 slot in the 40 Greatest Metal Songs.
Unreleased tracks from Toxicity made their way to the internet in late 2001. The band never intended for the tracks to released to the internet as they were unfinished. These songs would later be finished and re-released as System’s third album entitled Steal This Album! in November 2002, a move the band made after expressing disappointment that their fans were hearing unfinished material. Steal This Album! only had one single, “Innervision”, but has many fan favorite tracks such as “Mr. Jack” and “I-E-A-I-A-I-O”. The album peaked at number 15 on the Billboard 200 and has gone Platinum. Entertainment Weekly said “Steal This Album stands head-and-tattooed shoulders above its competition in the hard-rock genre.”
In 2005 the band released a double album Mezmerize/Hypnotize with six months separating each album. Released on May 17, 2005, Mezmerize debuted at number one in at least 12 countries, including the US Billboard 200, with 453,000 copies, and has since been certified Platinum by the RIAA. It contained the singles “B.Y.O.B>” and “Question!”. Despite the time difference between releases, the album actually takes its name from the lyrics in the song “Hypnotize”; Mezmerize and Hypnotize were recorded within the same time frame. Allmusic gave the album 4.5 out of 5 stars and Kerrang! gave it 5 out of 5. The second part of the double album, Hypnotize, was released on November 22, 2005. Like Mezmerize, it debuted at No.1 in the US, making System of a Down, along with The Beatles, Guns ‘N Roses, and rappers 2Pac and DMX, the only artists to ever have two studio albums debut at No.1 in the same year. Hypnotize contained two singles, the lead self titled single and “Lonely Day”. Mezmerize/Hypnotize was a slight sonic shift for the band, as Malakian wrote the vast majority of music and lyrics for the albums. Tankian often stepped back from his lead vocal duties, letting Malakian sing much more.
The band took a hiatus from 2006-2010, stating that they needed time to rest and recharge, as System has been going strong for a decade. They assured fans that this was not a breakup, but at the time did not a have a definite date marking the end of the hiatus. On November 29, 2010, following several weeks of internet rumors, System of a Down officially announced that they would be reuniting for a string of large European festival dates in June 2011 including the Download Festival and Rock am Ring/Rock im Park. There have been no definite fans to return the studio, but it has been definitely ruled out either.
System of a Down’s lyrics are often oblique or Dadaist, and have discussed topics such as drug abuse, politics and sexual intercourse. As all four members are of Armenian descent, they lyrical topics often include their outspoken views expressed of their songs Armenian Genocide of 1915 as well as the ongoing War on Terrorism. It is difficult to describe System’s sound or place them in any set genre(s), but they have been often termed alternative metal, alternative rock, art rock, experimental metal, experimental rock, hard rock, heavy metal, new prog, nu metal, progressive metal, progressive rock and thrash metal. Their resulting varied sonic influences and styles has resulted in a sound that is consistently all their own.