System of a Down, ‘Hypnotize’ (American/Columbia)
System of a Down toured arenas this year with Bad Acid Trip, a spaz-metal band whose moniker fits System pretty well — although Half-Bad Acid Trip would be more fitting. System like to channel-surf between screaming death-metal freak-outs and dilated art-mosh celebration, with bits of Armenian folk music and cartoonish vocals thrown in for good measure. “Chop Suey!” — their best-known single (from 2001’s Toxicity) — is in the running for the most uplifting song about suicidal tendencies that wasn’t recorded by Suicidal Tendencies. Suffice to say, this is a profoundly bipolar band.
Hypnotize is part two of the split opus they began earlier this year with Mezmerize, joining Conor Oberst and Kate Bush in the revival of that ’70s art-rock archetype, the double LP. And it proves again that System’s strength, and their weakness, lies in their 100-mph mood swings. As a piece, Mezmerize/Hypnotize is about propaganda, psychic overload, unaccountable governments, God going AWOL, drugs, television, Tiananmen Square, falling bombs, prostitution, Hollywood, and the business of rock’n’roll — scary subjects all. Per usual, it’s also about brutal riffage that turns on a dime, spiked with Eastern European flava, stoner wordplay, and pseudo-operatic bellowing that might have given Freddie Mercury wood.
This second volume mirrors the first in content as in title: Its dozen tracks, all around four minutes long, ricochet through a clutch of ideas, compressing what might otherwise be prog-rock suites into jump-cut barrages. That strategy certainly keeps the songs moving, but the ideas rarely gel or stretch out. By the disc’s second half, the high-speed diversity blurs into undifferentiated hopscotch. “U-Fig,” which is full of haunting guitar lines and a hallucinatory rant about beating (or alternately, eating) flag-wavers, really deserves a “Stairway to Heaven”-scale build. Ditto Hypnotize’s powerful finale, “Soldier Side,” which was teasingly introduced at the beginning of Mezmerize. Here, it weaves a bouzouki-like melody line through a tale of doomed recruits “standing on the top of their own graves / Wondering when Jesus comes / Are they gonna be saved?”
Both songs end too soon, and that’s a compliment. Chalk it up, like the band’s decision to release this two-disc project in separate halves, as a bow to the supposedly shortened attention spans of their fan base — an unnecessary move, since System are among the few modern hard-rock bands worth our undivided attention. For what it’s worth, Hypnotize is the project’s better half. The sex-and-drugs-for-sale social critique “She’s Like Heroin” is more lucid than the last album’s “Violent Pornography,” though lyrics like “She wants nothing more / But to be a little whore” seem to blame the victim. And “Vicinity of Obscenity,” which resembles a Russian drinking song and rhymes “beat the meat” with “treat the feet” between shouts of “terra-cotta pie, hey!” is funnier gibberish metal than Mezmerize’s “This Cocaine Makes Me Feel Like I’m on This Song.” Hypnotize is also a more explicitly political record, which is no mean feat.
System show a taste for sheer sonic beauty here, especially on the gentle “Lonely Day,” where the reprise of “the most loneliest day of my life” aligns them with George W. Bush, Fabolous, and Gretchen “Politically Uncorrect” Wilson in battling the tyranny of grammar. It’s a love song, albeit one that seems to be about suicidal drives — either the singer’s or his lover’s — with vocals from tunesmith Daron Malakian, whose fragile voice is now officially outperforming, or at least out-emoting, that of lead singer Serj Tankian, much like Pete Townshend’s did Roger Daltrey’s in the Who. But the song’s tenderness is a promising sign. Is it unreasonable to want more beauty and coherency from a band whose brand is largely about indictments of human stupidity and evilness conveyed via psychotic musical fits? Maybe. But, hey, that’s what happens when you set the bar high.