In the late 1990s, a very unique voice carved its obscure and nasal way into alternative music’s collective consciousness. It was a memorable voice, accompanied by an equally memorable, hyperactive and quite frankly insane musical backdrop. This voice belonged to one Serj Tankian, and the schizophrenic heaviness behind him that he so ably navigated came from a band called System of a Down. These days, there are few names more commonly known in alternative music, such is the international acclaim that this misfit troupe garnered from the release of their debut, self-titled album in 1998 until their hiatus in 2006. To this day, one can rarely enter a rock bar without hearing ‘Chop Suey’ on the airwaves.
Due largely to the timing of their emergence, System of a Down were initially often tarred with the nu-metal brush which was so liberally slapped around by bands and critics alike around the turn of the millennium. However, to put System under the same banner as bands like Limp Bizkit is to do them a great disservice. Although they may share some superficial similarities in low-tuned, crunchy guitar tone and grooving, simplistic riffs, Serj and his band of misfits made it clear very early on that theirs was a sound not be pinned down. Carving a niche all of their own, their take on the ‘alternative’ metal blueprint took in influences from eastern and traditional Armenian music (owing to the shared cultural heritage of all four Armenian-American band members) as well as virtually every sub-genre and cross-pollination of rock and metal that could be conceived. Never quite pompous enough to be ‘progressive’, but far too complex and manic to be considered in any way straightforward, System were unparalleled. Their lyrics, which dealt with both heavy, political issues, and seemingly incoherent nonsense (often simultaneously) added yet another layer of fascination, and in the eyes of an ever growing horde of fans worldwide, System of a Down produced 5 largely flawless albums, somehow managing to retain an instantly recognisable sound of their own despite their scattershot musical palette.
And then they were gone. In 2006, System of a Down left us. Like some kind of alien invasion, they had descended upon our musical landscape like nothing before them, wrought scarily entertaining havoc and then disappeared, leaving the world a different place and us all wondering what had just happened. Stating they would take a hiatus of at least 3 years, each member followed his own path in the time to come. Serj forged a fairly successful solo career, guitarist/vocalist Daron Malakian and drummer John Dolmayan formed another rock band, Scars on Broadway, and bassist Shavo Odadjian pursued various projects, including recording an as yet unreleased album with Wu-Tang Clan member RZA.
The anticipation grew. Three years passed, and rumours abounded online. Were they ever returning as they promised? Were their other projects becoming too big to leave behind? Was this all a clever ploy to whip the masses into a frenzy for their return? If it was, it was working; System had left a gap that had yet to be filled, and the world was missing them sorely.
Then, in 2010, the news finally broke. Tankian, Malakian, Odadjian and Dolmayan would reconvene under the System of a Down banner for a string of festival dates. The rock and metal world shuddered with excitement. Fans who had adored System in their teenage years had grown up now, sure, but who wouldn’t want to see these kings reclaim their throne?
The expectations were sky high. Unfortunately, the delivery was not. Reviews of their initial reunion performances were, understandably, rife with frothing praise by those who had been dying to hear these songs live for years, but as video footage surfaced, a very different band were on display than the vibrant upstarts of 4 years prior. Each member inhabiting his own corner of the stage and barely leaving it, the band seemed to deliver each song precisely and correctly, but without any of the provocative vigour they were so famous for. Serj’s voice never gets any less distinctively wacky, but his persona seemed to have gone from mad-scientist-like fervour to that of an amenable cruise ship crooner. Embarking on an epic reunion world tour, which has been pretty much ongoing ever since (with another leg added this year to commemorate the Armenian genocide), the band show no sign of relenting, but attentive fans would be forgiven for questioning if it is in the right spirit.
In these kinds of reunion situations, two unavoidable thoughts always arise in the minds of the public and the press: will they record another album, and are they just doing it for the money? The former of these has been posed to System members several times in the years since their reunion, usually met with a safe, calculated answer along the lines of ‘if and when it feels right, then maybe’. However, it has also highlighted some tensions within the band on at least one occasion. Not well known for his verbal restraint, bassist Shavo stated on Facebook in 2013 that the whole band were waiting on Serj, who was supposedly being unreasonable and that they were ‘trying to get a new album out, it’s just not passing Serj’s RULES!’. Though this statement was later deleted and renounced officially by the band, it doesn’t suggest the most comfortable of working dynamics.
Of course it’s not unknown for functioning, high profile bands to not get on. In recent years it has been reported that fellow heavyweights and worldwide metal superstars Rammstein are far from best pals, and yet have managed almost total global conquest. Perhaps the notion of a band being a bunch of mates having a rollicking good time and coincidentally also having a knack for churning out top tunes is outdated; is in-fighting fashionable? Romantic even? More importantly though, is it sustainable?
System of a Down have recently stated that, to paraphrase, they might maybe possibly think about considering potentially recording an album after this tour late in 2015, maybe. But for armies of devotees, this is potentially dangerous territory. A band of this calibre have a lot at stake after such a long period of studio absence, and with tensions evident and hearts not discernibly 100% in it, the possibility of collapsing such a colossal legacy is almost too much for the System disciples to take. As for the money question, it’s nice to hope that your idols would be the exception and wouldn’t bow to such a power, but given the evidence on display, perhaps even System of a Down can get Lost in Hollywood.