System of a Down: The reunion that's being unjustly overlooked?
For a brief moment -- sometime in early 2005 or so -- its seemed as if L.A.'s System of a Down was the most vital band in America. Politically direct and aggressively weird, System of a Down's heavy metal activism was, at its best, rock 'n' roll as news bulletin.
Take, for instance, the headline-worthy stats that marked "Prison Song," which shined a light on a disenfranchised segment that's all too easy to ignore. Then, at the height of the band's popularity, System of a Down released the frantic panic attack of "B.Y.O.B.," with its gripping imagery of less-than-dedicated U.S. soldiers placed in harm's way by bureaucratic fat cats.
It wasn't simply an antiwar anthem. The song was bold, carefully spreading the blame with a subtlety that contrasted with the music's thrashy, hot-and-cold pace. Steeped in Armenian heritage, System of a Down's Serj Tankian and Daron Malakian could write scatterbrained, prog-rock melodies with the most cautious of lyrics, addressing a wartime period with chant-laced songs such as "Holy Mountains," which was colored by haunted imagery of the Armenian genocide.
Tonight, System of a Down will appear at the Forum. Top-tier tickets, as of 4 p.m., could still be had for face value. It's not exactly a triumphantly sold-out homecoming for a band that hasn't toured since 2006.
So what happened? For one, the band didn't exactly go out at its height. The 2005 double album "Mezmerize/Hypnotize," one that was teased with the promise of lead single "B.Y.O.B.," didn't quite live up to that song's expectations. In interviews near the time of release, members of the band spoke of increasingly spreading around the songwriting duties, and indeed, Malakian, who had previously written most of the band's music, took on a greater role as a songwriter and a vocalist.
Yet System of a Down didn't benefit from more democratic leadership. Tankian is a vocalist like no other, an operatic orator one moment, a high-pitched joker the next, sometimes singing as if electric shocks were coursing through his veins. Sudden jolts could knock Tankian into a cartoonish rush, or downshift him into more elegantly restrained territory.
I spoke with Tankian in 2005 for Billboard Magazine, during which he told me that he wanted to focus more on film scores and that he did not want to be defined simply by System of a Down. Yet the band's identity appeared to suffer from Tankian's growing interest in other projects, as the group suddenly seemed stricken with a lack of focus.
More often than was comfortable, the songs of "Mezmerize/Hypnotize" seemed loose in their targets. "She's Like Heroin" dissolved into silliness, and "Kill Rock 'n Roll" and "Lost in Hollywood" saw System of a Down addressing the more scenester aspects of L.A., an easy, ho-hum target the band is above.
Maybe that's why most fans, including myself, are taking a wait-and-see approach toward this reunion (plenty of good seats remain for Wednesday's appearance at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater as well). While solo projects by Tankian and Malakian failed to ignite much excitement, System of a Down went on "hiatus" at a time it felt most necessary. Amid an increasingly volatile political climate, System of a Down seemed to abandon its mission.
I still count a 2005 System of a Down concert at Universal City's Gibson Amphitheatre as one of the most memorable performances I have seen by any act. At one point in the show, Malakian told the crowd: "This band didn't start to change the world. This band didn't start to change your mind. This band started just to make you ask questions."
Much has happened in the last five years that still deserves to be queried, and no chart-topping rock band has seemed up for the challenge System of a Down set forth for itself. To be sure, I'm glad and hopeful that System of a Down is back, but for a band that was always very much of the here and now, it will take more than a revisiting of a back catalog to raise a discussion.
-- Todd Martens
Photo: System of a Down's Serj Tankian in 2005. Credit: Los Angeles Times