In the wake of the September 11 attacks, Clear Channel Communications (who now exist as iHeart Media) issued a memo to their hundreds of US-based radio stations, advising them on what songs should be potentially pulled from airwaves following the terrorist attacks.
The list itself is hilarious in retrospect, with harmless doo-wop fare like The Ad-Libs’ ‘The Boy From New York City’ sharing space with Ozzy Osbourne’s ‘Suicide Solution’. Famously, every single Rage Against the Machine song was flagged, showcasing a broad misunderstanding about what prominent media companies believed was dangerous in the shadow of actual violence and destruction. Also included on that list was the recent single from Armenian-American metal band System of a Down, ‘Chop Suey!’
‘Chop Suey!’ is a song about destructive behaviour, whether that be drug addiction, sinful indulgence, or abuse. The lyrics key in on suicide and the motives that might lead to that mindset. It’s dark, but it’s also a song about agency and the choices that an individual makes in their life, whether they be healthy or harmful. System of a Down don’t advocate for suicide: they advocate for compassion and understanding for the dark recesses that human beings often find themselves in. That kind of nuance wasn’t exactly taken into account at a place like Clear Channel.
System of a Down couldn’t have landed on a worse time to come out with a masterpiece. Toxicity is an album that focuses on progressive prison reform, police brutality, the complications of separating science and religious belief, autocratic control, and how institutions in the US fund drug cartels and start proxy wars. It was made by four guys who, to a number of ignorant onlookers, looked like they were from the Middle East. It was also released a week before 9/11.
The fact that Toxicity had as much success as it did is somewhat startling, considering that American culture devolved into a jingoistic mess immediately following the attacks. Lead singer Serj Tankian even penned a scathing essay that directly implicated the US and their focus on obtaining oil from Middle Eastern countries two days after September 11, and the album still went to number one on the Billboard Hot 100.
That’s because the quality of music on Toxicity simply couldn’t be ignored. Nu metal was on its last legs by 2001, and System of a Down shared little with the genre other than detuned guitars and occasional screaming. Influenced by an equal brew of Slayer, Black Sabbath, The Who, Frank Zappa, and traditional Armenian melodies, System of a Down played aggressive music with an intelligent and humorous bent. They were highly political but also absurdist in their approach. They could translate to a large mass of fans who never even bothered to look at the band’s lyrics.
The songs themselves are highly rhythmic and angular. Guitarist Daron Malakian and bassist Shavo Odadjian play against each other like they’re dual-wielding buzz saws, while drummer John Dolmayan brings a distinctly Peart-like prog-rock nimbleness to the overwhelming wallop of the band’s combined power. The arrangements often feature multiple distinct passages, and the traditional verse-chorus structure is rarely employed.
‘Prison Song’, ‘Needles’, ‘Jet Pilot’, and ‘Bounce’ went a long way in convincing people that System of a Down were one of the heaviest bands around, but it’s the more melodic material on Toxicity that makes the most impactful impression. ‘Science’ contains both guttural wails and trilling vocal lines. ‘Psycho’ shows off Tankian’s impressive vocal range. The album’s title track shows how comfortable the group are with hooks and earworms. For every pulverising song (most of which are frontloaded on the album’s tracklist), there’s another that reveals depths that bands like Slipknot, Drowning Pool, and Mudvayne couldn’t match.
But it’s the final track, ‘Ariels’ that points System of a Down to a more experimental future. Moody and highly orchestrated, the track finds Tankian and Malakian harmonising over blaring, but not overbearing, riffs and sounds that drop in and out of intensity as the song slithers across a genuinely catchy chorus. As the song fades into its conclusion, a surprise presented itself on the original CD — a hidden track, ‘Arto’, that was a direct acknowledgement of the band’s Armenian roots.
Conventional wisdom should have dictated that System of a Down would be ruined by Toxicity. Based on the climate of America at the time, System of a Down made for easy scapegoats. But the power and propulsiveness of their sound perfectly fit the chaotic and white-hot anger of the time, even if their lyrics didn’t always translate to the kids who were moshing to them. There’s something remarkable about just how fascinating Toxicity sounds twenty years later. To say it still sounds fresh would be an understatement. The album hasn’t lost any of its confrontation or relevance, and it seems as though the rest of the world is finally coming around to just how revolutionary System of a Down were.