Thrash Mental Has SOAD made the album of the year?

North Bay Bohemian, CA
June 10 2005

Thrash Mental

Has SOAD made the album of the year?

By Karl Byrn

As an album-of-the-year candidate for the tumultuous 12 months of
2001, System Of A Down’s outspoken metal classic Toxicity was hard to
beat. The album was notable in part for the track “Chop Suey!”
perhaps the most visible song banned from the Clear Channel
Communications radio network in the wake of the 9-11 tragedy. At the
time, the song’s desperate martyr imagery was considered too
specific, almost suspect coming from a band whose members are
American-born Armenians. But the moment demanded music that was
conflicted and intense, and ultimately, Toxicity established SOAD as
multi-platinum selling metal leaders.

Does System Of A Down’s latest disc Mesmerize (Sony) have what it
takes to contend for 2005’s album of the year? We won’t know the
answer until this fall, when the band releases Hypnotize, the second
half of a two-disc set they’ve chosen to release separately rather
than together. This maneuver counters rock’s prevailing mode for
double album releases–i.e., issuing two separate albums at the same
time, as folk-pop hero Conor Oberst did earlier this year. Mesmerize
is only half the story, and with a disc package that opens backwards,
there’s some evident intent to confound the fans.

Nonetheless, Mesmerize does find System Of A Down at an interesting
intersection of metal trends. Current heavy rock seems compelled to
be either hyper-technical and difficult, or hyper-emotional and
accessible. The spastic noise-punk of hardcore acts like the Blood
Brothers and Space Tourists is music that’s purposefully complicated.
Bands like Shadows Fall and Mastodon are following a strict Iron
Maiden-like level of progressive musicianship. But if you prefer
sentiments and intimacy, there’s the heartache of yearning
“emo-metal” bands like Killswitch Engage and Thursday.

These tendencies are in bloom on 2005’s important heavy rock
releases. The Mars Volta explore a diverse prog-metal that explodes
with passion on their Latin-flavored rock-opera Frances the Mute
(Universal). Industrial-goth god Trent Reznor is more open and direct
than ever on [With_Teeth] (Interscope), his re-emergence with his
band Nine Inch Nails. Mainstream supergroup Audioslave’s sophomore
disc Out Of Exile (Interscope) pursues a post-grunge thoughtfulness.
Dancing between these trends is Queens of the Stone Age’s Lullabies
to Paralyze (Interscope), a disc too consciously art-punk to be too
technical or too real.

System Of A Down does it all. Mesmerize features their trademark odd
sound, where violent stop-on-a-dime tempo and rhythm changes are
organically crossbred with Eastern European melodic roots. By now,
their abrupt musical shifts are about more then convoluted riffs;
more importantly, song sections are divided into emotional contrasts.
In the same way grunge played loud against soft dynamics, SOAD plays
wacky brittleness against imploring empathy. Much of the credit for
these precision flailings goes to vocalist Serj Tankian, whose
delivery shifts from tweaker Hobbit to raging bullroarer to sad poet
as suddenly as the riffs change.

Heavy rock is finally running parallel to this spastic/sublime
duality, and rock in general is finding the topical passion SOAD has
always offered. On Mesmerize, they’ve already begun shifting their
pointed ire from institutions to the politics of human behavior. The
disc opens with two substantial anti-war jabs, but works its way to
two concluding strikes against an easy target, Hollywood. They’re
attacking–and grieving over–a collapse of ideals.

Hypnotize will have to be the better half of Mesmerize/Hypnotize to
make the set a championship “album” of 2005. At the year’s
near-halfway point, though, the anti-war pile driver “B.Y.O.B” is
certainly up for song of the year. The song’s thrashing shifts
include the uncomfortably bluesy refrain “Everybody’s going to the
party, have a real good time / Dancing in the desert, blowing up the
sunshine.” Then, the band wails out three questions, but only two
have answers. “Why don’t presidents fight the war?” is a silly
question, and “Why do they always send the poor?” is a question whose
answer is stunningly obvious. But the unsettling yet plainspoken
question “Where the fuck are you?” is where System Of A Down offers a
challenge aimed to outlast the trends.

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