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System of a Down pushes limits of mainstream music

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Posted: Monday, August 8, 2005 6:23 am

System of a Down’s 2003 CD, "Toxicity," was a huge victory for fans of adventurous music. Stretching the boundaries of hard rock and heavy metal with stop-and-start beats, crunching guitars and offbeat vocals, ‘‘Toxicity" was hardly a recipe for mainstream success — yet that’s exactly what the album became.

A multiplatinum seller, the CD debuted at No. 1 and spawned four hit singles, including the chart-topping "Aerials."

With the prospect of even bigger success, many fans undoubtedly wondered if System of a Down would rein in some of the unpredictable and unconventional tendencies that characterized "Toxicity."

But to hear guitarist/singer Daron Malakian tell it, fans never had anything to worry about when it came to the band’s new CD, "Mezmerize," or for that matter a second disc, "Hypnotize," which is slated for release this fall.

As the band’s chief songwriter, Malakian is clearly driven not by financial reward, but by his creativity.

"That’s what makes you wealthy, man, not money," he says. "Money doesn’t bring me happiness. We’ve done well. I’ve bought myself a house and a car and stuff. That stuff doesn’t bring me happiness. For me it’s all about the next song or taking what I’ve done to another level. That’s what gets me high."


System of a Down have been following their musical path since 1994, when Malakian and singer/ keyboardist Serj Tankian — who had started a group called Soil the year before — added Shavo Odadjian on bass and changed the Southern California band’s name to System of a Down.

Drummer John Dolmayan came on board in 1996, and two years later, after landing a deal with American Recordings, the band released their self-titled debut CD, followed by "Toxicity" in 2001.

From the start, Malakian says, he and Tankian (who shares lyric-writing duties) put musical development as their priority.

"When we were a club band, we always used to say, ‘Man, if we ever see success, we’d like to open doors for other people, to push the boundaries and fully contribute something to art, to music, that is going to help it evolve instead of doing stuff for the sake of money or doing stuff for the sake of being popular," Malakian says.

Given that mind-set, it’s no surprise that musical growth remained a goal for "Mezmerize" and "Hypnotize."

"We wanted to make a record that was a success beyond where we were at," Malakian says. "All of my favorite bands evolved, and I really wanted our band to evolve."


Malakian and his band mates can consider that mission accomplished. "Mezmerize" — which is receiving rave reviews and, like "Toxicity," went straight to No. 1 on Billboard’s album chart upon its release — is every bit as daring and difficult to categorize as "Toxicity."

At the same time, "Mezmerize" is the most approachable album yet from System of a Down. Songs like "Revenga," "Violent Pornography" and "Radio/Video" feature soaring vocals from Tankian and Malakian, plenty of catchy instrumental riffs and other nifty sonic twists.

Malakian, who wrote most of the music for "Mezmerize" and "Hypnotize," wrote so many songs that System of a Down considered making the new record a double CD.

In the end, the band opted to split the material into separate single-disc sets, with "Mezmerize" to be followed by "Hypnotize" this fall.

"As a writer I kind of go crazy," says Malakian. "I even had, like, at least 20 or 30 more songs to bring into the band. But we had to stop and get into the studio at some point."


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