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Music / System of a Down

L-R: Serj, Daron, Shavo, John

System of a Down is an Armenian-American rock group consisting of lead singer/keyboardist Serj Tankian, backup vocalist/guitarist Daron Malakian, bassist Shavo Odadjian, & drummer John Dolmayan, formerly drummer/one-time vocalist Ontronik Khachaturian. The name ultimately derives from a poem written by Daron titled "Victims of the Down." They changed the name to "System of a Down" so that their CD's could be shelved closer to their musical idols, Slayer. In their early years, they were (more or less incorrectly) labeled Nu Metal. This gradually subsided once the band gained further respect among both metal fans and the more critical segment of the mainstream. With that said, their sound isn't genre-definable but they sound similar to metal, alternative, & progressive. In general, most of their work fits well enough under the general label of "rock" music.

After the success of their fourth and fifth albums, Mezmerize/Hypnotize, in 2006 they parted ways to work on various non-SOAD projects (Tankian's solo effort, Scars On Broadway formed by Malakian and Dolmayan, and Odajian's work with RZA). All of them except Malakian claimed this was an indefinite hiatus, but a lot of fans assumed it was more of a break-up, until they reunited for a tour in 2011. The band have continued to tour since, but it currently unclear if and when the band will record another album; as of 2015, Tankian has stated a new album is being considered, but there is no definitive word on anything.

The band released five studio albums:

Their lyrics often revolve around themes of isolation, insanity, and criticisms of modern society. Some of their songs have absurdist lyrics, others are sung as if speaking directly to the listener and feature terse statements and lots of questions/demands, and others yet are more sarcastic and satirical. Probably their most well-known attribute is their rapid tone/tempo/time signature changes, giving the music a schizophrenic feel (most noticeable in songs like "Question!," "I-E-A-I-A-I-O," "B.Y.O.B.," and, of course, "Chop Suey!").

They have been vocal in spreading word about the early-20th-century Armenian genocide, up to and including a tour to commemorate its 100th anniversary (though Malakian has stated that "P.L.U.C.K." is their only song about said genocidenote ). They are also in favor of drug decriminalization & are strongly anti-interventionist.

Tropes found in their music:

  • Aerith and Bob: Serj, Daron, Shavo and...John.
    • The band's original drummer, whose real name was the impossibly bad-ass Ontronik Khachaturian, simply went by "Andy", making him an Aerith AND a Bob.
  • Album Title Drop:
    • Toxicity has one in the track it's named after.
    • Hypnotize and Mesmerize each have a song that does this; see Book Ends below.
  • Alternative Metal: It's both an accurate and an inadequate descriptor for them.
  • Audience Participation Song:
    • The video for "Boom" was shot by Michael Moore during the massive worldwide anti-war protests in 2003. Most of the lines are sung by random protesters. It also includes a Harsher in Hindsight moment when the video shows a the "scary" factoid that the war could cost $200 billion. The total cost is estimated to be in the trillions.
    • "Prison Song" becomes this live, as does the bridge for "War?"
    • "Psycho." The audience sings the "PSYCHO! GROUPIE! COCAINE! CRAZY!" refrain.
  • Avant-Garde Metal: Trope Codifier for modern experimental metal.
  • Bawdy Song: "Bounce", "Cigaro", "Violent Pornography", "I-E-A-I-A-I-O"
  • Book Ends: Mezmerize/Hypnotize double album, the one's outro echoing the other's intro ("Soldier Side").
  • Careful with That Axe: Frequently, though mixed with other vocal styles as well. See Soprano and Gravel below.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: "Fuck the System", among others.
  • Crossdresser: "She's Like Heroin'':
    "He wants nothing less but to wear a little dress."
  • Digital Piracy Is Evil: After outtakes from the Toxicity sessions were leaked to the internet as Toxicity II, the band rerecorded most of the tracks, added some new ones, named it to Steal This Album! and changed the art to look like it was a burned CD with the title written with a Sharpie. More a parody or commentary than outrage, as they later said they don't care if fans download their music as long as it's after the work is released.
    • They did some other things. They gave it no promotion and did not advertise it (ie, like a bootleg), and the album didn't even include a booklet in America. It does in the UK and Europe but it is a simple one sided sheet saying "Steal This Album!" on one side. Some copies of the US album had art CDs drawn by the band, something which is an occasional selling point of bootlegs.
    • Interestingly, the band regard Steal This Album! as their third album, indicating that they were satisfied with how it was released.
  • Dissonant Serenity:
    • The stylistic disconnect between a frantic verse & a calm chorus ("Chop Suey", "B.Y.O.B.", "Vicinity of Obscenity", "Violent Pornography", among others).
    • The song "Temper" from their second demo is the opposite of this, a relaxed, mid-tempo verse and a brutal grindcore chorus.
  • Distinct Double Album: Mezmerize/Hypnotize, released as two discs but intended as discrete parts of a coherent whole.
  • Downer Ending: "Lost in Hollywood"; "Soldier Side".
    • On that note, all of their albums end depressingly. Their self titled debut closes with "P.L.U.C.K.", a song about young men forced to join the army in the wake of the Armenian genocide. Toxicity ends with "Aerials", a song about how selfish the human race is, and its hidden track is a tribal rendition of Armenian church hymn "Der Voghormya" (God Have Mercy). In addition, Steal This Album! ends with "Streamline", a song about a man not being there for someone when they were on their death bed,
  • Everyone Went to School Together: Serj and Daron went to the same (Armenian-American, no less) grade school.
  • Everything Is an Instrument: The end-section of "Aerials".
  • Excited Show Title!: Steal This Album!, "Chop Suey!", "Question!"
  • Fading into the Next Song/Siamese Twin Songs:
    • "Mind" into "Peephole".
    • "Pictures" into "Highway Song".
    • "Thetawaves" into "Roulette".
    • Bonus points for the triple: "Holy Mountains" into "Vicinity of Obscenity" into "She's Like Heroin".
    • "Forest" into "ATWA".
  • Fun with Acronyms: "B.Y.O.B.", usually used to mean "Bring Your Own Beer", is used by System to mean "Bring Your Own Bombs". "A.D.D.", usually used to mean "Attention Deficit Disorder", is used to mean "American Dream Denial". Then there are things like "P.L.U.C.K.", which stands for "Politically Lying, Unholy, Cowardly Killers", and "ATWA", which stands for "Air, Trees, Water, Animals".
  • Gag Penis: "Cigaro."
  • Genre-Busting: Not just as their musical style (Rock/hard rock/alt rock/alt metal/progressive metal/progressive rock/Experimental/self-described as 'pop'), but the combination of clearly stated protest & absurdity.
    • They even throw in some Armenian folk riffs into many of their songs, giving them a somewhat Middle Eastern flavor.
    • The Genre-Busting probably shouldn't come as any surprise since they've named Frank Zappa as one of their primary influences. Indeed, several critics have compared them to Zappa.
  • Hešvy MŽtal ‹mlaut: "Nüguns" is written like this on the track listing.
  • Hidden Track: An adaptation of the Armenian hymn "Der Voghormia" (meaning "Lord Have Mercy"), after "Aerials".
  • Humans Are Bastards: Their lyrics tend to be very cynical and critical of society as a whole.
    Everybody, everybody, everybody living now. Everybody, everybody, everybody sucks!
  • Ice-Cream Koan: "Aerials", and arguably most of their repertoire.
  • Indecipherable Lyrics / Something Something Leonard Bernstein: A lot of their music isn't quite indecipherable, but is quite hard to decipher.
    • The fast vocal riff for "B.Y.O.B."
    • Large portions of a lot of their more absurdist songs, such as "Vicinity of Obscenity", "Bounce", etc.
    • From "Fuck the System":
      I but a little bit bit bit show, but a little bit bit bit shame, but a little bit bit bit-BIT BIT BIT
    • "I-E-A-I-A-I-O" flirts with this trope. The lyrics are decipherable, but performed at such high speed that it takes several re-listenings to make them out properly.
    • "Chop Suey!" certainly is quite strange to listen to before you figure out the high-speed shouting.
      WAKE UP! Ragabragamagalaka MAKEUP! Haddaskadafadawraka SHAKE-UP!
  • Intercourse with You: "She's Like Heroin", "Violent Pornography", "Bounce", "Cherry/Virginity", and "Vicinity of Obscenity".
  • Large Ham: Started out as Serj ("Sugar", "Bounce", pretty much most of the first two albums), but Daron slowly began to take the spotlight ("Needles", much of Mezmerize/Hypnotize), while Serj sits at the Cloudcuckoolander ("This Cocaine Makes Me Feel Like I'm on This Song", "Vicinity of Obscenity", "Revenga", "Radio/Video") / Deadpan Snarker ("Cigaro") / occasionally The Quiet One ("Lost in Hollywood") position. With the release of Serj's two solo albums, he's gone back to the Large Ham he's meant to be ("Lie Lie Lie", "Beethoven's Cunt", pretty much everything else).
  • Last Note Nightmare: "Aerials", for one.
  • Loudness War: To some extent, a LOT of their work, especially just about everything on Toxicity. They're all Rick Rubin productions and three of their albums were mastered by Vlado Meller. Clipping is basically guaranteed, unfortunately.
  • Lyrical Dissonance: Many, including "Bounce" (a very heavy song about group sex), "Shimmy" (a hard song including lyrics about indoctrination and subjugation, also about wanting to dance all night and not being late for school), and "Kill Rock 'n Roll", a heavy, serious song about the time Daron hit a rabbit with his car. (Note the cryptic lines "eat all the grass that you want / accidents happen in the dark".)
    • In fact, to people who associate the sound of metal with dark, nihilistic lyrics about mass murderers and Satan, the band's entire output could qualify, as they show a good deal of moral consciousness in their lyrics, especially in their addressing of political issues and tragic world events.
  • Metal Scream: Both Serj and Daron are good at these.
  • Miniscule Rocking: Just as an example, Steal This Album! is sixteen tracks over 43 minutes ó that's just over 2:30 on average, with "Bubbles" just under two minutes long and "36" only forty-five seconds long. A song that lasts for four minutes or more is extremely hard to come by in general, though there usually is one track per album that exceeds five minutes and at least one other that equals or exceeds four (the sole exception being Steal This Album!, where only one song exceeds four minutes in length and none exceed five).
    • Both Mezmerize and Hypnotize, despite being released separately, are under 40 minutes and so could have fit on a single CD.
  • Mohs Scale of Rock and Metal Hardness: Usually about a 7 or 8. Some of their ballads go as low as a 4 or so.
  • Mood Whiplash: Serj himself has said "Bounce" coming right after "Chop Suey!" in the track listing is an example of this. Also, "Vicinity of Obscenity" being the next song after "Holy Mountains", and probably more.
  • Motor Mouth: One of the band's very defining characteristics. Almost every song by them has Serj singing really, really fast, so fast most of the lyrics can't be easily figured out with no help.
  • N-Word Privileges:
    • Their reworking of "Shame on a Nigga".
    • "Will They Die 4 U?", their collaboration with Mase, Puff Daddy and Lil Kim from the South Park Chef Aid album, where Serj can be heard singing/shouting beginning on the second round of the chorus, while Mase raps it.
  • Neoclassical Punk Zydeco Rockabilly
  • New Media Are Evil: Subverted by Steal This Album!, as it essentially encourages the fans not to buy it, and nothing about the album suggests that SOAD was angry about the material being leaked or potentially "stolen".
    • SoaD wasn't angry about the material being leaked at all, just that the songs weren't quite finished. They were happy to put out the material and present it like it was a bootleg. The band have absolutely no problem with people downloading their demo tapes, and have been known to play the exclusive material from them live.
    • On the other hand "Violent Pornography" says "Turn off your TV!".
  • Non-Appearing Title: "Stealing Society", "This Cocaine Makes Me Feel Like I'm on This Song", "B.Y.O.B.", "Chop Suey", "Chic 'n' Stu", "36", "U-Fig".
  • A Party Also Known as an Orgy: "Bounce".
  • Precision F-Strike: In the middle of "Lost in Hollywood", a slow ballad, Daron sings "All you bitches put your hands in the air and wave em' like you just don't care".
  • Protest Song: "B.Y.O.B.", "Prison Song", "Deer Dance", "Tentative", etc.
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: Repeated a few times in "Soil".
  • Rap Metal: Delved into this when they did a version of "Shame on a Nigga"
  • Riding the Bomb: Music video for "Boom".
  • Rockstar Song: "Radio/Video". Inverted by "Lost in Hollywood."
  • Sanity Slippage Song: The last 60 seconds of "Sugar" is a good example of this.
  • Science Is Wrong: "Science has failed our mother Earth." However, somewhat Played With as the song isn't necessarily protesting science in and of itself but the way that technology has raised the destructive capabilities of the human race exponentially, particularly when it comes to warfare and environmental degradation. The band explicitly compares the religious wars of the past with more recent wars fought with advanced technology.
    Fighting off the diseased programming
    Of centuries, centuries, centuries, centuries
    Science fails to recognise the single most
    Potent element of human existence
  • Self-Titled Album: Their debut.
  • Separated by a Common Language: "Lost in Hollywood" uses the "cigarette" meaning of the word "fag", which is usually a British usage.
  • Shout-Out:
    • The line "We can't afford to be neutral on a moving train" in "Deer Dance" is a paraphrase of a quote from anarchist historian Howard Zinn (best known for writing A People's History of the United States), which is also the title of a documentary about Zinn's life and work.
    • The line "Manufacturing consent is the name of the game" from "Boom!" refers to a seminal anarchist work of media analysis by Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, Manufacturing Consent. The title of the work is actually lifted from the work of liberal intellectual Walter Lippmann, but it's quite likely that System meant their lyric to refer to Chomsky and Herman's work rather than Lippmann's, because Lippmann used the concept approvingly, while Chomsky and Herman most certainly did not.
    • The title of Steal This Album! refers to Steal This Book by Abbie Hoffman, another anarchist. (Sensing a pattern here yet?)
  • Shown Their Work: "Prison Song" uses accurate (for the time) statistics in the lyrics.
  • The Something Song: "Prison Song" and "Highway Song".
  • Soprano and Gravel: Serj does this all by himself on the first album, going from screeching to clean singing to guttural roars. Some of the clean singing on later albums is done by Daron.
  • Subdued Section: Many, many songs. A few of the best examples are "She's Like Heroin", "Aerials", and "Chop Suey!"
  • Surprisingly Gentle Song: Their ballads, like "Roulette", "Soldier Side", "Lost in Hollywood", "Lonely Day", and "Hypnotize."
  • Sympathy for the Devil: In A.D.D.:
    We offer prayers for your long lost soul.
  • Title Track: Toxicity and Hypnotize both contain a straight example.
  • Uncommon Time: "Question!", a song with so many time signatures the band has had trouble performing it live. Many other songs as well, using time signatures like 6/8, 7/8, 6/4, 3/4 and 15/8 (7/8 + 8/8 in the riff of the song "Soil") along with 4/4.
  • Unusual Euphemism: "Bounce" uses pogo sticking as a metaphor for sex. In a live version included on a bonus disc of some versions of Toxicity, Serj drops the pretense that it's about pogo altogether and sings "I brought my pogo dick."
  • Vocal Tag Team: Daron and Serj on later albums as Daron started singing more.
  • Word Salad Lyrics: Too many to list, but especially "I-E-A-I-A-I-O", "Vicinity of Obscenity", "Old School Hollywood", and "Question!"
    • Daron admitted that "Suite Pee" was just a bunch of random lines strung together. Ditto "Sugar" and "Darts."
  • Xtreme Kool Letterz: "Nüguns," thanks to the umlaut.

Alternative Title(s): System Of A Down, Serj Tankian