Stuck in the Sky: System of a Down’s Self-Titled Debut Turns 25

Looking back on a punk-metal milestone

System of a Down (Image: Twitter)

Like Eminem and MTV-era Aerosmith (but so much more morally responsible than both combined), System of a Down was one of those perfect once-in-a-lifetime experiences for me as an adolescent just leaving middle school.

We now know Serj Tankian, Daron Malakian, Shavo Odadjian and the Trump-supporting John Dolmayan will likely never be able to agree on an entire new full-length’s worth of music again, though they hearteningly got it together for a not-bad two-song single in 2020 to bring attention to Azerbaijan’s attack on Artsakh.

That leaves five pummeling, hilarious albums between 1998 and 2005, all at least partly overseen by Rick Rubin and all in the realm of good-to-great, with the two most successful the greatest (Toxicity) and the closest to merely good (Mezmerize). Serj Tankian is funnier, more original and more tender and melodic than Mike Patton ever was, and that’s his closest on-record referent. There’s otherwise never been a frontman like him in the rock era, you’re better off comparing him to stuff like Robin Williams’ genie in Aladdin. He sings, sure, but on his band’s first and least compromising album, he mostly relies on his psycho-trickster cartoon squeaks and stutters and gutturals, and I’d argue it’s their most special record for that reason alone.

Later radio staples like “Chop Suey!” and “Toxicity” flirted with true beauty and in many ways those tracks most fulfilled System’s promise as music. But as a force, as the album other people would be least able to replicate because they aren’t this quartet, System of a Down is insurmountable. A quarter-century on, what sticks out to me most listening to an 8th grade favorite I wasn’t 100 percent sure would hold up is how much more punk it sounds than metal. Rubin’s famously dry production certainly entranced me as the array of untameable, disjointed sounds filling it out, with Dolmayan’s reverb-free drums swinging, thrashing, power-ballad thudding and metalcore-chugging every which way, turning on a dime like he’s inside Tankian’s hyperactive head. But those constant, expertly confident switch-ups of tempo, genre, voice even, are what entranced this Soul Coughing fan instantly. Simply, most metal, obsessed with building and cresting, does not reward ADHD attention spans like this band’s Satanic-jukebox-on-shuffle schtick.

System of a Down System of a Down, American Recordings 1998

“Darts” blares open with hardcore, sections of “Soil” remind me of Dirty-era Sonic Youth and “Mind,” always the one track that didn’t work for me, takes on genuine avant-garde qualities now. If anything, the album’s whirlwind crunch sounds more brutal and impressive in the post-everything-quantized era. I’m also more accustomed to metal (and how melodic the band became after) so I no longer feel this album was a couple more hooks away from being a classic; it holds up well next to Toxicity and on the right day bests it on the strength of the sheer passion of Tankian’s lunacy and the conviction of the band alone.

“War?” and its seething “we will fight the heathens” refrain would’ve gotten them disappeared to Guantanamo if they released it post-9/11, and the occasionally disco “P.L.U.C.K.” (not their worst acronym: “politically lying unholy cowardly killers”) made them the world’s most famous ambassadors of justice for the million victims of the Armenian genocide. 

Like the aforementioned Eminem, the singles set a template they’d use for a bit too long: the beautifully paranoid “Spiders” was a dry run for the more workmanlike, inferior “Aerials,” one of their biggest hits. And zany album highlight “Sugar” is like nothing else you’ve ever heard; it’s incredible they were allowed to make it their first single and even more incredibly how instantly it made such a strange band Billboard mainstays. Tankian barks some kind of radio-jock/one-man-standup routine over a nervous Malakian figure and the rhythm section’s tense cartoon-bebop shuffle, between thudding-riff choruses, culminating in an unhinged coda, none of which should’ve worked on rock radio.

But even though the mainstream audience didn’t even pretend to understand what Tankian’s talking about (and the Natural Born Killers-esque “Sugar” touches on the whole System bingo card: drugs, gun violence, satirical masculinity, satirical murder), they recognized from his dumb voices (the huffed helium at the climax of “Suggestions”) to his dumb titles (“Suite-Pee” isn’t even the band’s worst album-opening pun, hi “Chic ‘n’ Stu”) that unlike most art-rock and hardline protest music, he’s in on his own silliness. That went a long way towards making an English-abusing band (see name) seem both likable and unpretentious. Underrated rhythm section, too, except it’s not just the bassist and drummer. All four of these guys have an amazing grip on the pockets and anti-pockets of jazz, funk, traditional Mediterranean folk, hip-hop, quietly but frequently four-on-the-floor. Even when Serj isn’t bleating in an Arabic minor scale or triple-time rapping you can they’ve absorbed vast quantities of non-metal that only makes their alloy stronger, heavier, more dangerous and unpredictable.

But System from start to finish, even though they kind of got trapped inside their own unrepeatable formula, are one of those rare acts that straps you into their world with no betrayals of their style. (Their friends in Rage Against the Machine are another, though Tom Morello’s soloing has always astonished me more than his increasingly samey riffs). They might not even have any bad songs between those five LPs, just versions of other songs that weren’t as awesome as others: do you prefer “Mr. Jack” or “Hypnotize” — both even hinge on the same sitting-in-my-car image.

System of a Down 1998 (Image: Twitter)

Their aesthetic was so hermetically sealed that you don’t blame them necessarily for not knowing what else they could do now. Hell, you don’t even blame them for not overthrowing Dolmayan, whom Tankian is bound to by law as their wives are sisters. From the unexpected classic-MOR guitar soloing on “Soil” to the Brechtian oompah of the anti-drug “Peephole” (is that an uncredited tuba?), they overstuff 40 extraordinarily entertaining minutes with virtually everything but sparingly deployed melody, which will come soon enough. The debut relies on personality more than anything that came after, even Toxicity.

It’s remarkable how many different tones, colors and emotions they’re able to awaken of your senses without layering guitar-bass-drums-madman with anything electronic. And on the debut, virtually anything that doesn’t sound like the four people are playing it live in front of you in the room. It’s remarkable that they existed at all, for as long as they did, and got as big as they did, without many people feeling the need to question the out-on-a-limb bullshit they constantly flaunted.

It’s wild that so many people could feel so comfortably on the inside of the absurdist joke, and that the mischief-makers themselves rewarded them with such gracious songwriting and heartfelt convictions. Greatest nü-metal band? One of the greatest bands.


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Ted Miller

Ted Miller is trying to collect the head of every Guns ‘n Roses’ guitarist for his rec room. He currently has three.

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