System of a Down’s breakthrough album, Toxicity, hit stores on September 4, 2001, and within eight days, the “selfrighteous suicide” mentioned on hit single “Chop Suey!” had a meaning the band never could’ve anticipated. (No wonder they’re not releasing Hypnotize, part two of this “double album” follow-up, for six months — gives ’em a chance to respond to any world-altering cataclysms in the interim.)
But as resonant as these Armenian-American quasi-goth, post-thrash, nu metalheads instantly felt, their Chomsky-setto-Primus program fit as poorly with any unified political agenda as all that hyphenation suggests. When Daron Malakian’s almost giddy Eastern European fret-runs drooped into forlorn minor-key interludes, or when frontman Serj Tankian went from declaiming prison statistics to wailing about tapeworms, who knew whether to rage against the machine, thumb our noses at it, or just slink away?
Moods are muddled even more artfully on Mezmerize. Both the stogie-ain’t-just-a-stogie bluster of “Cigaro” (“My cock is much bigger than yours / My cock can walk right through that door”) and the X-rated screed “Violent Pornography” leech brilliantly off of their targets. And the perpetually amused Tankian remains the sort of agitprop trickster whom partisans on both sides of the aisle are wise to distrust. He never sounds less angry than when he’s “sounding angry,” and he undercuts his somber moments by playing up the pomposity in his soaring upper register. It’s unsettling that the elegy for “A sad Statue of Liberty / And a generation that didn’t agree” is so resigned, while “Old School Hollywood,” which disses Tony Danza and Annette Funicello’s ex-boyfriend, is so venomously heartfelt. But anyone who scoffs at “political rock” and thinks the antiwar jam “B.Y.O.B.” raises moot questions had better come up with some noncynical answers to “Why don’t presidents fight the war?” and “Why do they always send the poor?” posthaste.