System of a Down

The four members of Los Angeles-based System of a Down are the unlikely architects of a twisted new prog-rock schematic. Their quirky time signatures and complicated instrumental arrangements make their music a little difficult to embrace upon first listen. (Give their audience credit for remembering to take their Ritalin.) Pay close attention and you'll find that SOAD's lyrics contain a certain deep-fried intellectual subtext usually reserved for satirical novelists like Mark Leyner or Mark Z. Danielewski.

In fact, their second album, Toxicity, bares a freaky resemblance to Danielewski's novel House of Leaves in the respect that it's always dragging you off in different directions, yet still manages to feel implicitly paranoid and uncomfortably claustrophobic. With succinct song titles like "Science," "X," Needles" and "Suicide," it ain't hard to see what we're dealing with here. Bandleader Serj Tankian (who carried a 4.0 through college, but won't talk about it) writes scary "adult" music for optimistically challenged teen end-gamers. Some might say that SOAD is a psychotic Armenian boy band seemingly fixated on an introspective victimology; others might claim these guys are poised to be the next Rage Against the Machine. The band's 1998 self-titled debut sold more than 850,000 copies, and this new one shipped straight platinum; Toxicity is blowing up like Mylar balloons at the Green Room. So how in the world did all this happen?

SOAD was like the Wang Zhizhi of the 1998-'99 OzzFest posse--obvious mad skills, but still operating in an awkward phase of development. Tapping into the built-in fan base of headliners Slayer and Black Sabbath, the band bravely took its bizarre perspective straight to the front of the pit. It wasn't exactly like Sha Na Na at Woodstock, but it certainly wasn't easy either; nobody really knew what to make of them at first. Yeah, they were heavy and loud, but they weren't about to dumb down their lyrics to somehow connect with the gnarly studded-codpiece-and-black-bandanna crowd. It wasn't long, however, before they brought everyone on the tour bus around to their way of thinking. They moved higher and higher up the bill at Ozzy's house, brought in Andy Wallace to mix their second album and then eventually graduated to headlining the SnoCore 2000 tour last year.

Not that System of a Down has changed to fit in with its higher profile. Toxicity even features acclaimed multi-instrumentalist Arto Tuncboyaciyan, who has played with jazz artists Wayne Shorter, Al DiMeola and legendary toothless trumpeter Chet Baker. How many of your favorite bands have ever brought in an esteemed jazz cat to bang on a mop bucket full of water with an empty Coke bottle? Thinking outside the box has never come easy to immensely popular rock-and-roll bands. Adding an obligatory DJ is as close as most of them ever get.

We all wonder, on occasion, if all the really good, original ideas might have already been explored in pop music; it comes from having heard the same derivative shit over and over and over again. Then along comes a band like System of a Down, who flips everything over to take outrageous aesthetic risk--and ultimately delivers an inspirational surprise to a thoroughly unsuspecting audience.