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System of a Down making news

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  • System of a Down making news

    Orange County Register , CA
    July 31 2005

    Making news


    By BEN WENER
    The Orange County Register


    Questions, questions, more questions - and few answers: Rarely has a
    band inspired as many unsolvable head-scratchers as the one-of-a-kind
    System of a Down.

    For starters: How in the world did something so bizarre and
    brilliantly antagonistic become so immensely popular? How did it
    become the new giant of heavy rock?

    It helps to start with some standard-issue queries, ones greener
    journalists still ask, the sort initially put forth a decade ago when
    L.A.- based System rose from the ashes of an ordinary metal band
    called Soil, the first venture to pair polar-opposite creative forces
    Serj Tankian (37, vocals and lyrics, primarily) and Daron Malakian
    (29, guitars and music, primarily).

    Obvious Question No. 1: What in the world is a System of a Down?

    Best answer: You decide.

    "It means different things to different people," Tankian has said.
    "That's the beauty of it." For the record, the name's genesis started
    with a poem by Malakian, titled "Victims of a Down." "System" was
    substituted because it seemed stronger. "Everything is a system,"
    Malakian has said.

    Obvious Question No. 2: How do you describe, System's music, which
    resists definition?

    Every rock writer has tried to reduce its complex amalgamation of
    art-rock, surreal political abrasiveness, Arabian exoticism, thrashy
    metal and Frank Zappa absurdism to simple terms. Yet, as often occurs
    with groundbreaking sounds, no one description has gotten it entirely
    right.

    Most pundits give up and dub the group a genre unto itself. The more
    daring devise clever summations heavy on references that make critics
    chuckle, like this stab from the June edition of Blender:

    "Imagine the 'mamma mia' section of Queen's 'Bohemian Rhapsody' set
    to a Bulgarian wedding dance as played by Slayer and punctuated with
    a gaggle of vocal personal ads ranging from TV pitchmen to agitprop
    hucksters to death-metal growlers to muezzin calling the faithful to
    prayer - basically, Gilbert and Sullivan at Ozzfest." I'd add: As
    fronted by a bouncing and wailing guy who looks like Rasputin on
    leave from a stint with Oingo Boingo.

    I asked Tankian if he's found an apt description. He paraphrased the
    oft-quoted quip: "Talking about music is like dancing about
    architecture."


    Then there are some seemingly straightforward questions that remain
    unanswered even at this late point, with the outfit having issued
    four monster albums (2001's "Toxicity" racked up sales of 3.5
    million) and about to embark on a stateside tour Thursday in Long
    Beach while waiting for the November arrival of the second half
    ("Hypnotize") of a split-apart double-album that began with May's
    "Mezmerize," which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album charts.

    The first imponderable: Why must every piece about System of a Down
    mention that the band members are of Armenian descent?

    That's a puzzler even a cursory glance at recent System clippings
    proves true, one a reader reiterated to me after I pointed out the
    quartet's shared heritage in a review.

    To listen to System's albums, and consider its roots, it would seem
    crucial to note. Three of members of the quartet - Tankian, Malakian
    and bassist Shavo Odadjian - attended the same private Armenian high
    school in Hollywood. (Drummer John Dolmayan joined the group in
    1996.) Not surprisingly, System's music, and especially Tankian's
    maniacal vocal style, is often laced with striking,
    idiosyncraticstrains each member was raised with at home.

    Further reason to play up the Armenian angle: On its self-titled,
    1998 debut, System finished with a song, "P.L.U.C.K. (Politically
    Lying, Unholy, Cowardly Killers)," that condemned the Ottoman Turks
    of 1915-23 for the ethnic cleansing of Armenians, which killed 1.5
    million, and the Turks of today for refusing to acknowledge the
    atrocity occurred. The band, whose grandfathers were survivors of the
    genocide and fled to Iraq and elsewhere, also plays an annual
    L.A.-area show every April 24 (called "Souls") commemorating and
    aiming to boost awareness of the bloodshed.


    Considering all of that, how can one not point out that these guys
    are Armenian? It's too intrinsic, isn't it?

    "Well, yes and no," Tankian told me by phone from Rotterdam, the
    Netherlands, where System was midway through a European tour. "The
    problem we've had with articles from the beginning is that we just
    don't like being put in a box. At first they called us an Armenian
    rock band. Then they called us a political band, which some people
    still call us. We're always finding more adjectives that put us in a
    box, and anytime that happens, we naturally rebel against it.

    "I think some people are probably tired of hearing about us being
    Armenian. You know, Black Sabbath was an amazing band, but people
    didn't focus on them being English the whole time. The Beatles had
    lots of political and social commentary in their songs, but no one
    really called them a political band."

    Yes, but people eventually did brand John Lennon a political artist,
    at least partly. Likewise, though Malakian now contributes as many
    scathing indictments to System's lyrics as his goateed, curly-haired
    partner in barbed lunacy, it's Tankian who represents the activist
    face of the group. He is both the mouthpiece of its material and
    co-founder of the protest organization Axis of Justice with friend
    Tom Morello, formerly of Rage Against the Machine, now with
    Audioslave.

    Sometimes the invective in System's songs is blatant, as in "Sad
    Statue," about generational apathy, or "B.Y.O.B.," which wonders "why
    do they always send the poor" to fight wars; other times it's
    over-the- top and screwy, as is the case with the phallic,
    quasi-operatic "Cigaro," in which bragging comparisons of male
    anatomy becomes a starting point for globally aggressive stratagems.
    Regardless whether the focus is outwardly social ("Prison," the new
    "Violent Pornography") or inwardly anguished (the demented, suicidal
    "Chop Suey!"), the foursome remains best known as outspoken critics
    and caricaturists in an era saturated with meaningless pop and
    largely devoid of resolute political outcry, apart from token
    anti-war tunes.

    But Tankian balks at the thought that System is spearheading a fresh
    infusion of spiked diatribes into rock. "We do have a lot of
    political and social stuff in our songs," he says, "but there's just
    as much humorous stuff and personal narrative as well."

    As for drawing attention to the Armenian genocide: "I wish (it) was
    something that we wouldn't have to talk about. It would be great if
    politically things were resolved and we wouldn't have to talk about
    it again. Nobody really wants to. But it's a terrible tragedy and it
    continues to affect us. It is a part of who we are, but it doesn't
    fully define our music."


    So if terms like "art-metal" and "Armenian rock" don't paint a full
    portrait of System, how would the band prefer to be described?

    "How about nothing?" Tankian responded, laughing, perhaps realizing
    that won't happen. "How about just our name? I'd rather not do
    interviews. Just have journalists smoke one and enjoy the music and
    write whatever they want. Then you're dealing with the actual
    stimulus and subject matter, not the afterthought or the mental
    breakdown of it."


    Which brings us back to that perplexing afterthought no one, either
    in the group or merely observing it, can figure out.

    The second imponderable: How did an act as strange as System of a
    Down get to be so unbelievably popular?

    "Man, I couldn't tell you that," Malakian told Blender recently. "I
    mean, four Armenian guys? Who do you market that to? And our sound
    like 'B.Y.O.B.' - that'sa single?"

    Yet it is, dominating modern-rock outlets like KROQ/106.7 FM and
    causing fervor among fans like nothing since the dawn of grunge.

    Tankian can't explain System's success, either, though "one thing I
    can say is our music is very honest. That might strike a chord with
    some people."

    The band's ascendancy seems to rest on two resonant factors: 1) Its
    music defies categorization at a time when few others are pushing
    boundaries, thus appealing to people looking for something different;
    and 2) it gets at the heart of what many people, young and older, are
    feeling during times of war abroad and political acrimony at home.
    System ponders difficult issues that can't be resolved in four-minute
    songs; it raises questions but doesn't offer answers.

    Thus, it inspires listeners to think for themselves. "That's how it
    should be," Tankian says.

    Of course - in a utopian music biz where artistic pursuit trumps
    commercial viability. The real question, though, is whether System's
    breakthrough will cause a shift toward increased creative freedom
    within the industry. Will other acts follow its revolutionary lead?
    Will labels foster and promote it?

    Tankian isn't so hopeful. "I think there's a dichotomy at play -
    industry vs. art. And the industry is actually worse off now than it
    used to be, in terms of conglomerations having maximum control and
    fewer major labels all merging and cutting staff. There's less room
    for artistic development in the music industry today than there was
    10 years ago - which was less than there was 20 years ago, which was
    less than there was 30 years ago.

    "So the industry is not something to look at. Bands just have to do
    their thing, create the music that comes from their heart and somehow
    go directly to the public with it. It's never been the easy way of
    doing it. But that's the only way."

    In a roundabout fashion, that's exactly what System has done, by
    fomenting a grass-roots network of fans in Southern California while
    striking up a relationship with producer Rick Rubin, who has
    co-produced all of System's albums for his American Recordings
    imprint. If nothing else, System stands as proof that flukes can
    inexplicably work.

    But flukes are just that - flukes.

    "Yeah," Tankian says, "but it's time for more flukes."
    [url]http://www.ArmenianAncestry.com[/url] - [COLOR="Red"]Armenian[/COLOR] [COLOR="Blue"]Genealogy[/COLOR] [COLOR="Orange"]Forum[/COLOR]
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