photo & text by nacrowe
ever since i first discovered them at OZZFEST in 1999, i was all about SYSTEM OF A DOWN. especially their eponymous debut record SYSTEM OF A DOWN (AMERICAN, 1998), which had the same FRENETIC bordering on MANIC ENERGY and CRAZY TECHNICAL PROFICIENCY of what i heard live that summer. and that lineup was absolutely loaded with MEMORABLE sets by DEFTONES, SLAYER, PRIMUS, FEAR FACTORY, BLACK SABBATH, ROB ZOMBIE and the emergence of not just SYSTEM OF A DOWN, but also STATIC-X and SLIPKNOT. but they stood out not just for the reasons described, but they seemed to be playing out of a completely different PLAYBOOK. it was later i learned that they were a LOS ANGELES band being of ARMENIAN descent and that their music proudly incorporated the TRADITIONAL SCALES, POLYRHYTHMS and compositional influences of the FOLK MUSIC of their ancestral homeland. for me that debut record was a TRANSFORMATIVE experience on par with discovering RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE abroad as a middle schooler because it brought to bear a fresh UNIQUE perspective and approach to METAL in general. it was ORIGINAL.
thats why when the follow-up and commercial breakthrough TOXICITY (AMERICAN, 2001) was released two years later during my senior year of high school, it felt a bit UNDERWHELMING in comparison to their debut. yes the singles from this record were STELLAR, tracks like the BROODING "AERIALS," the stop-go FRANTIC CRAZINESS of "CHOP SUEY!" and the multipart epic "TOXICITY." but other tracks like "PSYCHO," "DEER DANCE," "NEEDLES," "ATWA," "FOREST" and "PRISON SONG" all felt like paint-by-numbers retreads of the first record. maybe its unfair in retrospect but my expectations for the record were pretty sky high at the time. it felt to me like a slightly reigned-in version of their debut to market better at powerful national ALTERNATIVE ROCK radio stations like 106.7 FM KROQ in LOS ANGELES. the SYSTEM OF A DOWN sound was there but was not DISSONANT or CHAOTIC enough to stand out relative to old standbys like the RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS or PEARL JAM. it reminded me that there is a reason that MR. BUNGLE and FISHBONE never got played on those stations, namely how much such confrontationally IDIOSYNCRATIC and COMPLEX songs would inevitably stood out in a playlist which is probably a no-no when selling listenership ratings to potential advertisers. TOXICITY at the time seemed ECCENTRIC, but not to the extent that it would stand out from the crowd like their debut did. i assumed such was by design.
plus in 2001 i moved from KUWAIT to SACRAMENTO and the CLUELESSLY PRIVILEGED kids at this white flight suburban high school were all into SYSTEM OF A DOWN . they thought it was pretty out there stuff and sadly that association with those losers made me instantly rethink SYSTEM OF A DOWN on the spot and especially their recently released second album at the time. that was the period that i got into POST PUNK, SHOEGAZE and INDUSTRIAL MUSIC for the first time which i cant help but believe that such outside investigation was somewhat influenced by being at a school full of NICKELBACK and GODSMACK fans. even in retrospect, that whole scene at my high school in SACRAMENTO was beyond LAME. hard to believe that incredible local musicians like CHELSEA WOLFE and NICK REINHARDT, who are roughly my age, where right next door in ROSEVILLE at the time.
time has proven that TOXICITY is one of the better albums of that era that i would put favorably in terms of songwriting INVENTIVENESS and sonic EXPERIMENTATION with the likes of peers like INCUBUS, MUSE, DILLINGER ESCAPE PLAN, MASTODON, DEFTONES, MODEST MOUSE and TOOL. i think it was ridiculously unfair of me to originally see them on the level of knuckle-dragging outfits like DISTURBED, P.O.D., DROWNING POOL or STAIND.