System of a Down, ‘Steal This Album!’ (American Recordings/Columbia)
In the wake of September 11, System of a Down became the rock band most willing to articulate the unstable–sorry, I just can’t do it. Let’s go ahead and admit that the best thing about this avowedly (and admirably) political band is Serj Tankian’s willingness to make a complete ass of himself.
Recorded mostly during the same sessions that produced 2001’sToxicity, which entered the charts at No. 1 on the day the earth stood still, Steal This Album! gives a nod not only to Abbie Hoffman’s revolutionary 1971 tract, Steal This Book, but also to Steal This Album by Oakland agit-rappers the Coup, whose most recent release, Party Music, originally featured cover art (designed before 9/11) that depicted the Twin Towers exploding. That’s some serious company. But the secret toSteal This Album!‘s success is the gratuitous exclamation point, which turns the title’s command into something louder and dumber.
So steal all albums! And, while you’re at it, steal this review! In a loud and dumb world, System seem to say that even irrational action is better than apathy. Steal vacillates between earnest commentary and balls-out lunacy, and guess which side usually wins. On “I-E-A-I-A-I-O,” Tankian spews a Tourette’s spray that links, among other things, Jimmy Carter, Lois Lane, and “bicycle shoestrings.” Another telltale exclamation point lets you know that the song “Boom!” is about bombs, not stock-market bubbles; Tankian predictably rhymes “corporations” with “globalization” and “condemnations,” but damned if he doesn’t make a more powerful point on the chorus, which goes “Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!” and then “Boom-boom-boom-boom!”
As always, System pepper their thrash with mysterious Middle Eastern and Central European motifs (I swear I’ve heard the melody of “I-E-A-I-A-I-O” at bar mitzvahs). The music on Stealsounds like a manic kid compulsively cranking a jack-in-the-box, but the overall effect isn’t as reductive as it seems on paper. The way these simple songs blur together works in the album’s favor: Just when you think you’ve got a foothold, the ground disappears under your feet. System’s repeated willingness to make so much noise in the service of getting nowhere reveals an enduring idealism, and it gives the lie to one of Tankian’s most nonsensical statements, from “36”: “Life–so unnecessary.”