A few weeks ago, System of a Down were just another band of Armenian Americans from L.A., vaguely mining the scorched-earth theme of that city’s dystopia, with a three-year-old near platinum debut to their credit. Following the music industry convention of releasing records on Tuesday, and marking first-week sales from one Tuesday to the next, Toxicity, SOAD’s follow-up, entered stores September 4. During a sales week whose terminus felt like the end of a whole lot more, some 220,000 people bought it, more than any other album out there. And so, when the SoundScan charts perfunctorily came out during the week the world stood still, perched at the top was an album whose first song imagines the U.S. as a gulag archipelago. It’s safe to say we won’t see that happen again anytime soon.
Toxicity‘s timing had an eerie logic to it, one that went beyond the album’s ham-fisted pun of a title and American Records’ doctored flag logo. As Americans were suddenly confronted with an Other they could barely comprehend, the No. 1 band in the country was comprised of members of an ethnic group whose nation many Americans would have trouble placing on a map, not the least because Turkey’s slaughter of Armenians marked the 20th century’s first real genocide. Armenian identity is a covert but definite component of System’s music (all but singer Serj Tankian are first-generation Americans; all but drummer John Dolmayan attended an Armenian private school in Hollywood). Aside from their self-titled debut’s “P.L.U.C.K. (Politically Lying, Unholy, Cowardly Killers),” which addresses the genocide by name, System’s Armenian background mostly surfaces in their music in the form of abrupt mid-song shifts from speed-of-light semi-traditional thrash to melodies that probably sound Central European to average American ears.
SOAD’s contribution to the post-9-11 discourse didn’t stop with their release date. Shortly after the attacks, Tankian, like many celebrities, was asked by various music news organizations to give his reaction to the events. He responded with a lengthy tract that tried to place the attacks in the context of U.S. foreign policy, touching on everything from Iraqi sanctions to America’s alleged complicity in the Armenian genocide, in exchange for oil rights. The statement (since archived at angelfire.com/ok3/soad/speech. html) was mostly notable for Tankian’s insistence that Americans should understand the terrorists’ possible motives. “Terror is not a spontaneous human action,” he wrote. “People don’t just hijack planes without any weight of thought to the action.”
The 33-year-old Tankian is no latter-day Dave Mustaine—his politics are clearly, for the most part, the product of protracted research and reflection. Tankian’s timing pissed off a lot of people, however, and a few days later he appeared on Howard Stern’s show to apologize for addressing the attacks in clinical terms so soon after the fact. The controversy over Tankian’s comments mirrored the debate already fomenting on the left (and when was the last time you could say that about a band?) between those who attempted, as Christopher Hitchens derisively put it, to “rationalize” the terrorists’ actions, and those who thought such explanations were either irrelevant, morally suspect, or ill timed. Like many left commentators, Tankian settled for a tentative rapprochement: He issued another statement expressing sympathy for the victims and praising the U.S. for supporting Armenian orphanages after the genocide.
Anyone who’s ever listened to a record while watching sports on TV with the sound off (or played that stupid Pink Floyd/Wizard of Oz game) can attest to music’s uncanny ability to impose order on everyday life. I suspect the reason so much recent music seems eerily prescient, from Dylan’s “bag of bones” to the Moldy Peaches’ “NYC’s Like a Graveyard,” is that so many of us right now are experiencing everyday life as a commonality with our fellow human beings to an extent we never have before. This, too, shall pass, but for now, the way we hear music has been recast. And so it is with Toxicity, with its references to “my self-righteous suicide” in “Chop Suey!” the album’s first single. Not to mention, elsewhere, “we can’t afford to be neutral on a moving train,” “pictures crazy, all the world I see before me passing by,” and, creepiest of all, the “horizontal jet pilot” cryptically smiling as he flies over the bay.
SOAD’s music doesn’t typically tend toward ham-fisted topicality, a subgenre that James Hetfield once mockingly dubbed “CNN Rock.” For every moment on Toxicity when a straw man is attacked (e.g., “science” in “Science”), there are plenty of others where the overriding message is that emotion and energy need an outlet. Toxicity‘s timing and Tankian’s politics notwithstanding, what really makes this record feel like now is its persistently inchoate quality. “Prison Song,” which packs a Bad Religion track’s worth of statistics about recidivism and mandatory-sentencing laws into its sorta-raga verses and dry, utilitarian, Metallica-circa-’87 metal, is a rare attempt at a coherent narrative. Elsewhere, Tankian attacks conspicuous consumption (I think) by repeating, “Pull the tapeworm out of your ass, HEY!” Even “Jet Pilot” is more amorphously melancholy than it is brutally literal, with Tankian spouting Wire-like wordplay about “horses” and “remorse.” In fact, were SOAD to change their pedal settings and ease up on the compression, parts of “Jet Pilot” and “Science” could almost be Pink Flag songs—such is this band’s commitment to cryptic minimalism.
Overall, Toxicity is flat-out funny, its intense energy directed diffusely outward, rather than at some target, human or otherwise. Tankian hoots and hollers, preens like Freddie Mercury, pomps like Maynard from Tool, and, when all else fails, babbles like a little kid on a long car trip. Despite the mysterious Middle Eastern timbres, many of these tunes register as schoolyard sing-alongs. Toxicity‘s most charmingly stupid song (and the one that, not coincidentally, sounds like Primus) is “Bounce,” a song about jumping around, wherein Tankian or someone else yells the word pogo over and over again. Toxicity‘s most stupidly stupid song is “Psycho,” which makes fun of groupies who—wow!—do cocaine, and even it sounds like the sort of repetitive cycle kids never tire of.
But that’s the thing about kids—what’s in their heads tends to come out of their mouths. For adults, it’s harder. Especially in times when expression seems futile, how do you deal with the noise in your head? You find comfort in incomprehensible thoughts intensely expressed. Toxicity contains a song called “X.” Maybe they couldn’t think of a title, or maybe it’s supposed to represent some sort of black hole of meaning. While Dolmayan pounds his snares like a mechanical monkey, Tankian yells, “Tell the people!” and then, “We don’t need to multiply!” Then he flips it, and suddenly it’s, “We don’t need to nullify!” Those are the two poles all right—but good luck navigating the divide. I may know the difference between rock ‘n’ roll and genocide, but after years of practice, I can still scarcely conceive of the latter. Toxicity, an album whose birth-school-work-death song is called “Shimmy” and recommends dancing as a palliative, is the rock ‘n’ roll of the moment because it recognizes that emotion confounds rationality. It forces you to let X = X.