System of a Down's Unrelenting, Peerless Attack

Read The Digital Liner Notes For Our Edition Of 'Toxicity'

On September 21, 2023

September 11, 2001, was a notable day in new metal releases, particularly for Rick Rubin’s American Recordings. In what can only be considered divine comic timing, Slayer’s ninth full-length God Hates Us All was on shelves when the Towers fell. They never passed up a chance to soak in blasphemy, and this was just handed to them on a bloody platter. Tom Araya screaming “GOD HATES US ALL” is doomer catharsis, finding joy in the utterly fucked. Other than that, it’s a standard issue Slayer record. (They would also release their final studio album Repentless on 9/11 – in 2015. The record’s OK, but they could not make the devil make lightning strike twice.)

More importantly, System of a Down’s sophomore album Toxicity, released a week earlier, was the number one album in the States. Though it had previously sat behind Alicia Keys’ Songs in A Minor, initial Soundscan numbers overlooked an enhanced edition of the album, and those were enough to bring it to the top. Were it not for a paradigm-shifting attack, there would be much more to celebrate. A band of four Armenian-Americans – vocalist Serj Tankian, the poet; guitarist Daron Malakin, the wizard; bassist Shavo Odadjian, the pulse, and drummer John Dolmayan, the rock – making a racket and succeeding beyond everyone’s expectations should have been a party. As collective illusions shattered across the world, Toxicity was something to help pick up the pieces, offering clarity through (and alongside) insanity. Toxicity rose to the moment – it’s that this particular moment was forced on them with the impact and speed of America’s missiles. And unmanned violence is one of America’s many chief exports.

That’s why System couldn’t start off light.

Who would ever think that a number one record would begin with a song calling for prison abolition? “Prison Song” isn’t subtle, and it shouldn’t be. Tankian merges his brain and his gut to bellow from the depths, facing injustice with pained righteousness. For someone who did not grow up with metal or hard rock – Tankian says he didn’t get into Black Sabbath until he was well into his 20s, all respect to late bloomers – he’s got a convincing death metal growl. Those, combined with his whispers of “they’re trying to build a prison,” Malakin squeaking about causal abuse in Hollywood, and Tankian firing off grim prison statistics – notably, how drug money fuels international conflicts while people with possession charges rot in jail - with laser speed and precision, is a barrage of voices only matched by Malakin’s machine gun riffing and Dolmayan’s swift, razor-like fluidity.

“Prison Song” is their most explicitly political song alongside “P.L.U.C.K.,” the closing track from their self-titled debut that directly addresses the Armenian genocide. If you’re a late Gen-Xer or millennial, it’s very likely you know about Armenia through them. Separation and oppression haunt System of a Down, and that animated “Prison Song,” a song about America at its core. Its wide-ranging condemnation stems from a personal incident, namely, Malakin getting busted for weed possession. Though he made bail, he recognized that not every person who gets arrested is a successful musician who has people like Rick Rubin in their corner. Most of them languish – families broken, potentials unseen, songs unsung, neighborhoods and communities choked. Not the “freedom ain’t free” most people want to digest.

Criticizing America in September 2001 was…dicey, to say the least. Shortly following the attacks, Tankian published “Understanding Oil,” an essay detailing the United States’ meddling in the Middle East and how it lead to 9/11. It gained a lot of controversy, especially in such a fraught time. Then again, when was it ever going to be a perfect time to speak your peace? When is it ever convenient to point out America is the aggressors too? System notoriously made enemies with Howard Stern, but the sharpest criticism came from Dolmayan, concerned for the band’s safety. 


Rage Against the Machine’s 2000 dissolution inadvertently cemented System as the political rock group of the early and mid 2000s. Tankian, the group’s chief lyricist, took naturally to activism. In “Deer Dance,” he lays it out clean: “We can't afford to be neutral on a moving train.” The other members were a little more reluctant to be labeled a “political band.” This was especially true of Dolmayan, who served as System’s straight man throughout their career, preferring to provide a solid battery rather than revel in absurdism or use the stage as his pulpit. Toxicity is a record about delving into madness – some of it political, some of it isn’t. Still, social turmoil and displacement was not a game for any of them. Tankian and Dolmayan were both born in Beirut, and Odadjian lived in Armenia until he was five. Though Malakin is System’s only American-born member and L.A. native, his parents came here from Iraq. Los Angeles is their home, not quite their homeland. Tankian, Dolmayan, and Odadjian came here because their homeland is a battleground, always caught in the middle of political strife. Their lives were always political, there’s no escaping that.

System were also metal’s new clown princes after Faith No More first dissolved in 1998 and Mr. Bungle, Mike Patton’s other, more genre-skewering main concern, winded down a couple years later. (Patton actually dropped by the Toxicity recording sessions and regrets not collaborating with them. What a track that would have been!) They were as much Faith No More’s successors as they were Rage’s. Rubin was drawn to their whack-a-mole sound and outrageous look – as much makeup as Orgy with a more demonic carnival energy – back in their LA club days and made him want to work with them. Toxicity tones down the absurdity present in their self-titled – gave way to serious reflection, more focused performances, and letting songs breathe.

That’s if you don’t include “Bounce,” as wacky as anything from their self-titled. It’s Tankian singing about bouncing on a pogo stick, and how much girls like the pogo stick. It’s not a metaphor, it’s just a pogo stick. Incredibly silly, but they can make metal…bounce. Tankian has often likened his dynamic with Malakian to that of Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Flava Flav, the stern and observant orator versus the flashy, unpredictable, fast-talking jokester. “Psycho” begins with a lurching bass groove, Odadjian’s most prominent moment on here, before devolving into discordant picking from Malakian, then ping-ponging in between very sharp blasts and Tankian slowly meditating on on drugs and fame. Even “Prison Song” has a little levity thanks to Malakin’s interjections. System had to crack a little smile if they were gonna make it through America alive.

Though Toxicity is forever linked to 9/11 and the paranoid jingoistic climate that we arguably still live in, its release also came with its own localized tumult. System is not just a band from Los Angeles – they are Los Angeles as a band, four dudes united by Armenian diaspora exposed to many walks of life on a daily basis. They’ve always wanted to – and have succeeded at – keeping their heritage close while never losing sight of their kid selves obsessed with KISS and skateboarding. To not only usher in their second album and whole new era, but also to thank their local base who gave them the groundswell to tour across the pond with their heroes and make records with Rick Rubin, they organized a free concert for September 3, 2001, the day before the album’s release. 



The buzz around System’s return was real – so real, that over many, many people - estimates range from 7,000 to 15,000 – showed up to a parking lot meant to hold about 3,000. Police shut down the show, and when System’s banners came down 30 minutes after they were supposed to go on, shit went south. The band pleaded with the LAPD to go on with the show, rightfully stating that them not playing would cause a riot. The police didn’t listen, six fans got arrested, gear was destroyed, and System didn’t get their homecoming. It’s not how they wanted to sway the masses. Imagine that force being used to tear down a prison.

Before the anarchy on the streets and geopolitical turmoil and “freedom fries” being a thing people said in earnest, there was “Chop Suey!” By far their most popular song, it came out as a single a month before the record, building anticipation and giving their early converts a second confirmation. Malakin’s iconic opening drawl takes equally from Mediterranean music so prevalent throughout and Spaghetti Western. Then a concentrated attack, a spiked ball thrown around a glass house, somehow it doesn’t all break down. It was System’s breakout moment, and it was especially a breakout for Tankian, putting him in the Great Metal Vocalist conversation. His phrasings are as iconic as his words – how he turns into a pious nonbeliever crying out “Why have you forsaken me?/In your eyes forsaken me/In your thoughts forsaken me/In your heart forsaken me” at the song’s end, how tender he croons “I cry when angels deserve to die,” a revival singer for a resurrection that’s never coming. “Chop Suey!” was originally titled “Suicide,” somehow a touch too transgressive for label executives. The band surmised that if you chop suicide in half you get chop suey, and that’s how a Chinese-American restaurant staple was also blowing up rock radio in the early 2000s.

“Toxicity,” the second of the album’s three singles, is a surrealist whiplash, utilizing the broodiness of “Chop Suey!” in a totally different way. In the verses, Tankian flows through urban hallucinations in the verses and snaps into brutal reality in the chorus. Him yelling “DISORDER! DISORDER! DISORRRRRDER!” is essentially a summation of the album as a whole. “Toxicity” is also their tribute to their hometown - as broken down by tire rubber, fuel stench, and assholes who won’t turn off their goddamn brights, there is still vibrancy, there is still something. Do System descend into chuggy thrash chaos in the song’s in the bridge? No, they are lifting the veil on the energy that was there all along. Sometimes the energy is malevolent, sometimes the energy is inviting – with no disorder, there is no energy.

It’s weird to explicitly state this, but: Toxicity is a metal record. Any reasonable person would say it’s a metal record. System of a Down and their contemporaries – nu-metal as a whole, even if they don’t fit in to that genre – were written out of metal lineage from the genre’s heyday up until only recently. Nu-metal is viewed as a wretched aberration (and you’d think metal dudes really love wretched aberrations, but alas…), something to be never spoken of again, something that betrayed metal, rather than a natural outgrowth of metal interacting with other genres. Granted, a whole lot of it has aged poorly, and System is one of a very small handful of exceptions that don’t induce a groan-laden “yeah I really into ‘em in eighth grade but…” when they come up.



As System’s songwriting engine, Malakin affirms System’s metal bonafides. He is a Slayer devotee, especially of their first two records Show No Mercy and Hell Awaits. Some of Toxicity’s more freewheeling moments owe as much to Kerry King’s mindless soloing as it does Mr. Bungle’s non-sequiturs. “Science” honors Slayer’s punk-metal by leading a Stooges-esque riff into a more classic metal progression; “Jet Pilot” and “X,” their two fastest songs here, back-to-back is a vicious awakening. Malakin is also a huge fan of Death’s Human, widely considered a death metal landmark for embracing more progressive structures and lyrical themes. His axe of choice around Toxicity – an Ibanez Iceman – was made famous by Paul Stanley, but is also widely associated with Tom G. Warrior, the Swiss metal musician best known for Celtic Frost. Loathe as hardcore headbangers are to admit it, you hear Warrior’s mid-paced grooves all over 90s metal, and Malakin’s grooves are one warped-mirror room in his funhouse. “Forest” and “Deer Dance” pound with judicial might, base chunkiness used as mind erasers and reprogrammers.

System saved big metal broodiness for their closing track, “Aerials,” which would also become a huge single in its own right. It indulges in sitar and string arrangements like moneyed Californians in the ‘70s, but this song has a lot more weight and intent. Tankian weaves two contradictory notions: that we are all interconnected, no man is an island but a drop in the proverbial river, but breaking from the pact is part of enlightenment. Still to be egalitarian at all in 2001 was wildly progressive – ballads tend to be about the “I” and “you,” not the “we.” There’s room for multiple actors. “Aerials” couldn’t stop us from living in a “When I’m Gone” world, but it made it a whole lot more bearable.

We needed some antidote against patriotism and violent complacency. There was substantial opposition to Bush and his bloody wars, yet “substantial” does not always equal “a majority.” Even though System came up right as the Internet became central to American life, that did not mean the monoculture was dead. Consent is never manufactured in small quantities. If you were opposed to occupation, it didn’t just feel like you were ganged up against, it was psychological warfare.

Toxicity was one of those bits of culture that made people against the American regime realize they weren’t crazy, that someone else saw through the bullshit too. Eroding blind trust in the Endless War and the systems that suffocate us was (still is) a gradual process. Punters who’ll drunkenly stumble out of bars slaughtering the choruses to “Chop Suey!” and “Toxicity” probably never paid much mind to “Prison Song.” Yet while you can’t claim one song or one album changed a tide on its own, prison abolition is not the fringe issue it once was. You can get into the conversation by mentioning systemic failures, even if you still get yelled about personal responsibility, assuming said yeller is still into dog whistles. Toxicity hit big on first contact, yet its deeper messages are being realized through a slow build. It was a record of its time, and it’s a record of our time. 

They’re still building prisons. There’s still disorder.

Profile Picture of Andy O'Connor
Andy O'Connor

Andy O’Connor heads SPIN’s monthly metal column, Blast Rites, and also has bylines in Pitchfork, Vice, Decibel, Texas Monthly and Bandcamp Daily, among others. He lives in Austin, Texas. 

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