System Of A Down are one of the biggest and most influential rock/metal acts of the past 20 years. Their sound is instantly recognisable and stands on a separate plain amongst their peers. Highly political, the band are outspoken on many views surrounding subjects like the War on Terrorism and the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Despite these stand points, they are popular across the globe and have become the soundtrack for a generation.
Formed after the split of a minor band named Soil back in 1994, System Of A Down have maintained an almost solid line-up ever since. Despite being eight years his senior, Serj Tankian (lead vocals/guitar/keyboards) and Daron Malakian (vocals/guitar) clicked instantly thanks to their Armenian descent. Most people assume that Daron is Armenian himself, but he was in fact born in Los Angeles, California. Serj himself isn’t technically Armenian either; he was born in Beirut, Lebanon, and moved to L.A. when he was five. The other half of SOAD comprises Shavo Odadjian (backing vocals/bass) and John Dolmayan (drums). John joined when original drummer Ontronik “Andy” Khachaturian suffered a hand injury. Armenian Shavo and Lebanese Armenian John are often the lesser looked upon members of the band, but both contribute greatly to the SOAD sound.
1998 saw the release of the band’s first self-titled effort. It gained moderate success thanks to its producer Rick Rubin, but it wasn’t until 2001, exactly one week before the attacks of September 11th, that SOAD were really thrust into the limelight. ‘Toxicity’ debuted at number one in both the American and Canadian charts and went on to become multi-platinum worldwide. The irony of a middle eastern band releasing an anti-war album around the time of the September 11th attacks was not lost on the American public however, and many close-minded individuals bombarded the band with outrageous claims. Shavo was physically assaulted in a show in Grand Rapids, Michigan by security guards, who ethnically intimidated him and threw him out of the venue. ‘Chop Suey!’ was removed from many stations’ playlists due to its politically insensitive lyrics.
Despite the controversy, SOAD released ‘Steal This Album!’ one year later after demos leaked onto the internet. The album continued on where ‘Toxicity’ left off, and many dubbed it as ‘Toxicity II’. Nonetheless, Serj maintained that it was not an album of outtakes. Three years later, the band confirmed details of a double album, entitled ‘Mezmerize/Hypnotize’. The trademark SOAD sound was still there, but with more of a focus on Daron‘s output than Serj‘s. The writing duties fall mainly on Malakian, and songs like ‘Question!’, ‘BYOB’ and ‘Lonely Day’ went on to receive great acclaim.
Then, in 2006, the band encountered difficulties. Daron was adjudged by many to have let himself fall off the rails somewhat with drug abuse, and his live performances were becoming ever unpredictable. He confirmed that the band would be going on hiatus for “a few years” and subsequently formed Scars On Broadway with John Dolmayan. In the coming year, Serj released a solo album entitled ‘Elect The Dead’, an album that focused more on serious issues, with songs like ‘Empty Walls’ and ‘Lie Lie Lie’. Serj‘s unmistakable voice helped contribute to the album’s success, but it was less guitar driven than SOAD efforts. Scars On Broadway, meanwhile, released their own self-titled album that showcased the heavier side of SOAD. It didn’t garner as much praise, however, and it remains to this day the only official release by the band. Listening to the two albums side-by-side, it was clear to hear the two sides of SOAD; Serj brought the content, and Daron brought the groove.
Four years after their disbandment, SOAD reunited to perform at a string of dates. Download 2011’s headline performance was massively anticipated, and it was no disappointment. The band went on to tour worldwide, and have recently announced a UK appearance at the Reading/Leeds festivals (subbing to Biffy Clyro). As for a new album, Serj says that nothing is planned, “when it’s the right time, it’ll materialize, like everything else in the universe”.
Check out our playlist below, compiled with what we think are some of the best System Of A Down tracks in the band’s catalogue, both for newcomers to the band and firmly established fans.
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These are what we feel are the best three albums to start you out on your journey to System Of A Down fandom, along with the better offerings on each record if your wallet can’t quite take the strain of a new album just yet and YouTube/Spotify is your only answer. Definitely a good way of checking the CDs out before parting with your hard-earned cash too:
Released: September 4th, 2001
System Of A Down‘s breakout album, and an excellent introduction to the band for anybody. From the opening ‘Prison Song’ right through to closer ‘Aerials’, you will gain an understanding of the quirky brilliance of SOAD. Nobody has come close to imitating it, and when you realise that it’s an anti-war metal album written by members of Armenian descent, you can see why. ‘Chop Suey!’ is arguably the band’s biggest hit, and it’s a song that has started many on the road to SOAD worship. Just watch the video for it to learn exactly what the band’s like in just three minutes. Serj is confident as the lead vocalist, Daron is a nutter on guitar, Shavo is weird on bass, and John is happy to sit back on drums and be a genius. I always remember the day I watched that video, back in 2004 as a 14-year-old, and thought “wow, this is my new favourite band”. ‘Toxicity’ is one of those albums that you can put on from start-to-finish and not get bored. There’s not one bad song here, and there’s always something to make you sit up and think “huh?”.
Best tracks: Chop Suey! / Needles / Aerials
Released: May 17th, 2005 / November 22th, 2005
Okay, so I’m cheating a bit here, but ‘Mezmerize’ and ‘Hypnotize’ are a double album after all. Both records showcase SOAD‘s more Daron-orientated sound, with songs like ‘She’s Like Heroin’ and ‘Radio/Video’. There are some classic SOAD moments throughout, like in ‘Cigaro’ when Daron cries “my cock is much bigger than yours” or the bizarre banana/terracotta pie exchange in ‘Vicinity Of Obscenity’. These albums would probably appeal to the more light-hearted fans as they still deal with socio-political issues (see ‘Hypnotize’), but the whimsy is definitely in full flow.
Best tracks: Question! / Radio/Video / Old School Hollywood / She’s Like Heroin / Holy Mountains / Tentative
Released: November 26th, 2002
It wasn’t until I sat down and thought to myself “what is my favourite System Of A Down album?” that I realised that could well be ‘Steal This Album!’. It’s probably the least obvious option, but it’s still chocked full of brilliant songs. The bizarreness is cranked right up to 11 with ‘Chic ‘N’ Stu’, and who can look past ‘Fuck The System’ for a pure angry song. ‘Mr. Jack’ is an absolute blooter of a song and still sits atop my music library to this day. ‘Steal This Album!’ is often overlooked in favour of Toxicity, but doing so would be a grave misjudgement.
Best tracks: Mr. Jack / Fuck The System / I-E-A-I-A-I-O
Written by MG Savage