System Of A Down
arlier this year when the Foo Fighters released a double album, Dave Grohl joked in an interview that he was saving everyone 15 bucks by releasing the 2 CDs in one package. While he wasn't exactly right—after all, no one would have paid for just that crappy acoustic disc of In Your Honor—he did have a point. After all, the past year or so has yielded an unprecedented number of separately released double albums of new material from popular artists, both indie and major, from Nelly to Bright Eyes to Shakira to System of a Down.
While some of those artists separated their music into multiple discs to underline two different moods or approaches (as in the case of Nelly and Bright Eyes) or even two languages (Shakira), System Of A Down had a less concrete rationale for issuing two similarly themed albums from the same sessions six months apart. But it also made sense, since the time the hugely popular weirdo metal band takes between releasing albums of new material averages around three or four years; they might as well get two out of the way at once before the next long hiatus. And instead of one disc being an odds-and-sods collection like 2002's Steal This Album!, Mezmerize, released in May, and the newly released Hypnotize were conceived as two equal halves of the same album.
Advance reports and early reviews for Hypnotize have been encouraging, placing it just above Mezmerize, which was already one of my favorite albums of the year. But to my ears, there's no way Hypnotize betters or even equals its predecessor. The two albums contain a nearly equal ratio of System's various moods: spastic thrash metal, nonsensical chants, dour ballads, and touches of Eastern European and middle Eastern melodies. But where Mezmerize was perfectly paced and included some of the band's best attempts at all of the above, Hypnotize is muddled and inconsistent by comparison.
The divisive issue that has fueled the debates about how Mezmerize and Hypnotize measure up to the band's first cult-building two albums is the increased vocal presence of guitarist Daron Malakian. Malakian's always been the band's principal songwriter, coming up with most of the riffs and collaborating on the lyrics with lead vocalist Serj Tankian. But on the new material, Malakian has taken on a dominant role in both writing and singing the lyrics, his squeaky, awkward voice no match for Tankian's deep, versatile and perfectly pitched cartoon villain. For some fans, Malakian's trebly interjections hold back the band's new material from equaling their 1998 self-titled debut or 2001's Toxicity. But for others, such as myself, the point and counterpoint of their two voices on Mezmerize gave System's music a welcome new dimension.
On Hypnotize, however, I do find myself wishing Malakian would tone it down. When he and Tankian harmonize, it gives the songs a melodic charge, but more often, Malakian squeals out leads that might have been better handled by Tankian on songs like "Kill Rock'N'Roll." Even listeners who have accustomed themselves to Malakian's voice and the band's various eccentricities may find their patience tested by his seemingly purposefully tuneless performance on the incredibly grating "She's Like Heroin." And then there's "Stealing Society," which starts out strong as a Tankian-sung track, until a minute and a half in, when Malakian hijacks the song with lyrics about "crack pipes, needles, PCP and fast cars" and childlike "la la la la" background vocals.
System of a Down have built a reputation as willfully weird and creative outcasts, but four albums in, there's no getting around the fact that they do have certain formulas that they use often. Even a bizarre chant like "banana banana banana terracotta / Banana terracotta terracotta pie," from "Vicinity of Obscenity," echoes other silly food-themed refrains from past System albums like "Gonorrhea gorgonzola" and "pizza-pizza pie."
With few up-tempo highlights on the level of Mezmerize's "Cigaro" and "This Cocaine Makes Me Feel Like I'm On This Song," Hypnotize's few highlights are its somber slower songs. And the title track and lead single is far and away its best, a compact 3-minute masterpiece that comes and goes in half the time of the Toxicity hit "Aerials." The beautifully structured "Hypnotize" keeps building and building, from the quiet, unaccompanied guitar on the 30-second intro, to confusing verses about Tiananmen Square, to a huge stadium chorus of "I'm just sitting in my car and waiting for my girl," perhaps the least bizarre and therefore most surprising phrase to grace a System Of A Down lyric, to the tribal drums of the instrumental bridge, to another powerful refrain of the chorus.
After putting you through the annoyance of "She's Like Heroin" and "Lonely Day," possibly System's first banal ballad-by-numbers, Hypnotize ends on a high note with "Soldier Side," the conclusion of the short track that began Mezmerize, "Soldier Side Intro." And the ominous "Holy Mountains" is Hypnotize's most serious and politically charged track, written about the border disputes surrounding a mountain range in the Armenian-American quartet's homeland. It's passionate moments like those that save Hypnotize from sounding like Mezmerize's leftovers.
Still, releasing two separate discs, each less than 40 minutes long, is a wise move for the band, whose music veers from one extreme to another so much that a little from them goes a long way. Even if Hypnotize is full of missteps, its existence as a separate entity is what makes Mezmerize nearly perfect. So I'm not bitter that they didn't issue it all at once, because as a 70 minute album it would be much more difficult to digest or enjoy. But if you want to save 15 bucks and just pay for one album, stick with Mezmerize.
Reviewed by: Al Shipley
Reviewed on: 2005-12-14