System of a Down: Mezmerize
--Music Review Index
When “Sugar” came out back in 1998, I knew that System of a Down was a very . . . um . . . different band. Imagine pseudo-jazz high-hat, walking bass lines, syncopated crunching guitars, and schizophrenic nonsense lyrics, all chirped out in grandiose fashion, and you’ll kind of have an idea of what that song was like. I was completely taken. Then I was taken by the rest of SoaD’s self-titled debut. Then the stuff off of 2001’s Toxicity. And now I’m taken again. I really can’t over-exaggerate the extent of my addiction to Mezmerize right now. It’s sick. Profane. I listen to it in the car. Mowing the lawn. At friends’ houses. While surfing the Internet. It’s playing right now. And yeah: maybe I’m prone to obsessions. Maybe I’m a SoaD fanboy. Or maybe Mezmerize is just one of the best alt-metal albums I’ve ever heard.
Musically, Mezmerize is the most classically “metal” of System of a Down’s offerings. A palm-muted, reverse-picked, double-kick-drummed masterpiece, almost every song on the album is a fast-paced, technically impressive, thrashfest. However, in classic metal style, there are also a few slower, more thoughtful pieces that fill the “ballad void,” which metal bands since the 70s have always felt the need to fill. Being an Armenian-American band, some of the tracks also have an “ethnic” flavor—particularly “Radio/Video”— continuing a trend which SoaD is known for. “B.Y.O.B” stands out as the most musically catchy of the songs on Mezmerize. “Cigaro” gets the nod as the “heaviest” metal song. And “Question!” gets my vote as the most sublime, most musically well-rounded, and probably “best” song.
As usual, System of a Down’s lyrics on this album are some bizarre cross between political, spoken word poetry and dirty, nonsensical nursery rhymes (yes folks, there are some dirty words here). You want repetition as a lyrical device? Try this album. There are some songs that literally repeat sections of lyrics over and over for their entirety (see “This Cocaine Makes Me Feel Like I’m On This Song” or “Violent Pornography”). Sometimes, perhaps because of an English-as-a-second-language thing, I think that lyricists Malakian and Tankian just pick words that sound interesting together: “Gonorrhea gorgonzola” goes the chorus of one song, “It’s a non-stop disco/Bet you it’s Nabisco” goes another. I personally don’t mind the effect—the rhythmic nature of lyrics like these, besides jiving with the unique and operatic sound of Tankian’s vocals, add to the memorability of the songs.
Of course, the lyrics really do have a meaning, even when it seems like they don’t. From “Soldier Side”—the album’s acoustic intro—to its final track, “Lost in Hollywood,” a decidedly pointed stand is taken on some serious political issues. “Why don’t presidents fight the war?/Why do they always send the poor?” asks “B.Y.O.B.” “Cigaro” is a Freudian take on how the U.S. may be seen in the world. “Sad Statue” sees this generation as historic . . . again, for political reasons, especially the Iraq War. Fringing these issues, another theme that emerges from the album is skepticism towards the media and fame. “Radio/Video” seems to present a nostalgic view of fame, but two songs later, “Violent Pornography” describes our media-saturated world as a “non-stop disco,” and urges: “Turn off your TV.” And what about the two final songs, “Old School Hollywood” and “Lost in Hollywood”? Yes, System of a Down is an L.A. band, but they easily deconstruct the façade of all that Hollywood represents—“You should’ve never trusted Hollywood” taunts the album’s last line.
Which brings me to the spiritual implications of all this. Mezmerize paints a picture of contemporary American life. It’s a dark, confusing, information-overloaded, jaded, factioned, war-torn picture. Going back to Hollywood as a symbol, SoaD sees perhaps the entire country as “lost” in a “tinsel-town” where, perhaps, George W. Bush is the biggest movie star. All of us, apparently, “should’ve never trusted Hollywood.” So what do we do? In three places the album seems to advocate a “eat and drink for tomorrow we die” response. “B.Y.O.B.,” coming to terms with the Iraq War, decides to call it a “party.” “Violent Pornography” deems everything a “non-stop disco,” and (to add to the brand-filled meaninglessness) “bet you it’s Nabiso.” “Lost in Hollywood” says we should just “put [our] hands in the air/And wave them like [we] just don’t care.”
But despite this sense that Mezmerize gives of giving in to the inevitable and pointless destruction of everything, there is still something left. Hope? Maybe. Honest questioning about whether there is “more to it all”? I think so—“Question!” strikes me as honest wondering about life after death (literal or figurative). At least, though, System of a Down here retains the sheer indignance at how things are right now. This is, if I may say, a step in the right direction, spiritually. Like at an AA meeting, the first step is admitting there’s a problem, hating the problem—only after that can a solution be sought.
So, bottom line: this is a great album. It’s addictively heavy, musically stunning, lyrically meaningful, thematically interesting, and has spiritual potential. I for one can’t wait for Mezmerize’s companion disc, Hypnotize, to come out this fall. Maybe, hopefully, Hypnotize will try to bring some answers to the questions its sister album poses—some light to the dark. But even if there are just more questions, System of a Down will still doubtlessly have some more interesting things to say. Loudly.