JONATHAN DOWNARD photograph

by Jonathan Downard

November 1, 2005

America's Most Relevant Band

System of a Down came to Columbus, Ohio on September 25, 2005. At the Nationwide Arena, where the Rolling Stones had played the night before, seeing SOAD for the second time led me to a couple of realizations. For one, they stand up for what they believe in. Their parents must be proud of them. And I can't think of a better source for a voice of my generation, whatever that's supposed to mean.

Upon nearing the venue with Natalie (my wife, my personal proofreader/editor, and an inventive writer), a few things began to strike my interest. There seemed to be a limitless supply of the usual teenage, black-clad, pierced, gum-chewing stereotype of rock concert goers. Looking around with some dismay, I began to get the feeling that I may be too old to be part of this experience. But as I began to survey the scene, I found myself to be incorrect on that score. I am simply, at this point, beyond being jostled around in the "pit"-- the floor level seating where all of the moshing and body surfing occurs. Once proud to have been one of the muddy assailants in the front at a Nine Ince Nails show twelve years before, I realized that I could barely remember the real beauty of that show, having been drugged up and engaged in the "friendly" violence. Many other events since have had a much more mental and personally powerful effect on me, as I was actually paying attention-- I spent the money for my ticket to see them work and hear the music that I admired so, rather than worrying about "trippin' balls" and being pummeled silly by a bunch of arrogant posers. As I looked around the stadium seating surrounding the stage and floor, I noticed things I didn't really expect to see. I was not the oldest person in the room, as I had assumed. There were middle-aged people and some parents with children; and I'll be damned if I didn't see some grey hair without children anywhere nearby, too. Sure, the numbers among us were overwhelmingly teens and young twenty-somethings, but closer examination of the crowd revealed a much larger appeal and perhaps a spot of parental respect for the messages and social criticism contained in System's catalogue.

I had seen the band once before, fresh off their Toxicity album, at KROQ's Weenie Roast in Southern California. I had been watching shows all day, but it was all preparation for SOAD, the final headliner. They had blown me away with their sheer power of musicianship and charismatic energy. Serj, the lead singer, demonstrated that he could play guitar and keyboard with the band, and the four of them were in synch completely, as if they never made mistakes. Daron Malakian played a memorable guitar solo, twirling in a "whirling dervish" and slinging his guitar around himself in middair for what must have been three minutes. It was one of the best rock shows I'd ever seen, and I've seen well over 50-- I've lost track how many. That same year, at the Warped Tour, I saw and was awed by the Apex Theory, another great Armenian-Californian rock band whose former singer, Andy Khachaturian, used to play drums for SOAD (www.theapextheory.com). I also remember an episode in Los Angeles, when System of a Down was set to play a free show in front of the Staples center, but were delayed. Frustrated over their unavoidable tardiness, the crowd overwhelmed security and stormed the stage, destroying it, along with the band's equipment. I recall seeing the footage and hearing accounts, thinking, "How can these kids claim to love the band? They're destroying thousands of hard-earned dollars worth of their property!"

But now, with Mezmerize selling rampantly, the band has become an unstoppable juggernaut, performing beyond all expectations and seemingly more unified than ever. Guitarist Daron Malakian has become more of a co-lead singer, and Serj has become more proficient with his instruments. From song to song, power of emotion and perfection of performance astounds. The whole group represents a oneness that rarely exists anywhere. Their energetic performance seeps into all around them, creating butterflies in thousands of stomachs. All four seem to be immersed in their music, indivisible in their brotherhood, and completely behind their ideology. Their newest installment and second half of this serial double-album, called Hypnotize, is set to hit stores in late November, and I cannot wait.

I was eighteen when Kurt Cobain died, and I'm a couple of months from thirty now. I remember watching the Beastie Boys struggling to get some ass behind the Free Tibet movement. I watched Shannon Hoon (of Blind Melon) performing in a dress at Woodstock '94, shortly before he died. Soundgarden was at the height of realizing its true power, as were Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails, and Alice In Chains. But none of these voices, nor any since, has been powerful enough to presume to speak well for the concerns of my "generation." Tool came mighty close, but was too wrapped up in sexual mysticism and was at times impractical for the anthemic purpose I'm speaking of. Rage Against the Machine was full of political angst but seemed to lack enough actual musicality and palpable passion to make us truly feel it. System of a Down emerged to show us that they belonged with us: the unheard children of the eighties/nineties, witnesses to the costly Reaganomics era, the seemingly prosperous Clinton years, and the dubious and sometimes violent and frightening rise of the Bushes.

In 1998, I was allowing myself to be roped in by one of those CD clubs, enticing as they can be, with the "11 CD's for a penny" hook. As I was picking out albums, I read the spin about System of a Down's self-titled debut album. It was described as an "intelligent mix of metal, hip-hop, world music, and politics," and the picture of the outstretched, open hand on the cover mesmerized me. I had never heard of the band, but I figured, "what the hell-- I need an 11th album to fill my order, so I'll check it out." What a stroke of luck! Before their first popular singles began to grab major airplay, I was already taken with "Spiders," "Sugar," "Suite-Pee," and "Suggestions." An experimental musician myself, I was captivated by the interesting mesh of harshness and melodiousness and the wild combination of sounds: all-out dirty, detuned guitar metal; Middle Eastern and Eastern European traditional music; raucous carnival/circus sounds; and hauntingly pretty singing (some of which is rather operatic-sounding). I would watch the international cable channel at the hour when they would show Armenian television, marvelling at the clothing, the dancing, and most of all the melodies and the power of the voices. I could actually see the connection, and I began to admire and envy their recognition of their heritage and their ability to blend it into something completely relevant to the present. I am still deeply affected by it, as much as I have envied Led Zeppelin's ability to blend their (and my own) Celtic background with American blues and the sounds of the Middle East. I am not one to give support or endorsements lightly, but I have no trouble saying that this is the deepest and most relevant music we've heard since Zeppelin was touring the world.

The band consists of guitarist Daron Malakian, singer Serj Tankian, bassist Shavo Odadjian, and drummer John Dolmayan. All of Armenian descent, Odadjian was born in Armenia; Malakian in California; and Tankian and Dolmayan were born in war-torn Lebanon. Tankian humbly walks a tightrope between meditational enlightenment with altruistic musings and the revolutionary angst his powerful voicing bashes and croons with. Malakian is an intense, aggressive, and confrontationally creative musical sorcerer who is in your face, yet vulnerable and a bit reclusive, having had panic attacks over the band's initial surge of popularity. Odadjian is sure-footed, enthusiastic, and capable; yet self-conscious, anxious, and has a past filled with loss and upheaval. Dolmayan is meticulous, organized, motivated, and level-headed-- seemingly the member of the band most grounded in rationalism and stability... and quite an amazing drummer indeed.

One of the major themes in their lyrics and political statements is the injustice of the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Turks and the continued denial of it by Turkey, the U.S, and many of the governments of the world. In 1915, the Turkish government ordered the "deportation" of Armenians from their homeland in what is now eastern Turkey to "relocation centers," chiefly the barren deserts of Syria and Mesopotamia. They were driven out of their homeland, over mountains and deserts, with hundreds of thousands dying of starvation and exposure. Many were blatantly and coldly murdered. Dehumanization, torture and rape were standard parts of the process. Their small children were snatched from families and farmed out, renamed to be raised by Turkish families. Their properties were declared forfeit, and the Turks annexed most of their lands and denied that the Armenians had ever actually lived there. What was left of their homeland was overrun from the east by the Bolshevik Army and became part of the U.S.S.R. Over 1.5 million Armenians were brutally killed between 1915 and 1923. The failure of the international community to respond, recognize, and punish for this genocide is credited with helping to convince and encourage Adolph Hitler, two decades later, that he could carry out a similar policy of extermination of non-Aryans from Europe. In 1939, Hitler is reported to have remarked, "Who, after all, remembers the extermination of the Armenians?" Unfortunately, since many nations and organizations accept Turkey's denial of this horrible crime for reasons that are most likely political/economical, not many around the world do remember. That is why System of a Down has been working with the Armenian National Committee of America and others to further the cause for recognition, reparations, restitution, and to eventually restore an independent, democratic Armenia.

In the prologue to his novel, Ararat, Elgin Groseclose writes: Such an occasion was that of the threatened extinction of the Armenian peoples of the Ottoman Empire during the reign of Abdul Hamid. This is only one occasion in history: in the records of nations many have been written and are being written... The Armenian race survived, as it has survived many times before; for the Armenian is an ancient race and it has seen nations come and go, kings arise and fall, and the plow follow the sword.

As the reader probably knows, American history, especially regarding the near genocide of Aboriginal American tribes (commonly called American Indians), has been largely revised and falsified. Also, the not yet rectified fate of the Tibetans at the hands of Mao's China comes to mind. Much more recent history is already being adulterated, in light of the propaganda and misdirection current American government agencies are employing to cover the truth about 9/11, the war in Iraq, etc. But it's not too unrealistic to imagine the truth restored, thanks to people like you and me. Perhaps the plight of the Armenians will finally be widely recognized, and a future restoration of their homeland may come to pass as more of us take interest, thanks to the ANCA, System of a Down, Groseclose, Atom Egoyan and the makers of the stunning film, Ararat, and many others.

System of a Down is also very active in modern social criticism and current politics, as well. Several of the band's songs and statements deal with American and world issues, such as the unjust war in Iraq, drug policy reform, police brutality, racism, pollution, religious tolerance, and corruption. Asking the question, "why don't Presidents fight the war?", they remind us of older, more chivalrous times when the king or leader would appear on the battlefield with his soldiers, prepared to fight for the cause. With statements and questions like "what is in us that turns a deaf ear to the cries of human suffering?", they remind us that we are not living up to our ideals of democracy and humanitarianism. Another song, appropriately called "Boom!", declares, "4,000 hungry children leave us per hour from starvation while billions are spent on bombs, creating death-showers!" One only needs to listen to their albums and read their interviews to find that they are concerned with the progression of our society into an egalitarian future, rather than the rich-getting-richer, poor-getting-poorer state of America (and the rest of the world) today. This makes me think that their families and other Armenians must surely be proud of them. Daron Malakian's own father lovingly creates the artwork for their albums, posters, etc. They have managed to blend tradition and heritage with relevant politics and responsible world views, standing up to speak against the injustices of history and the injustices of the present. They combine spirituality with a brilliantly blended musical melange, unafraid to call a liar or a fake when they see one. Innovative as musicians, engaging as personalities, and uncompromising as social critics, I choose System of a Down to be the voice of my generation. I just wish all of us had the courage, the talent, and the scruples displayed by this group of conscientious objectors. Thank you, SOAD.

To find out more about System of a Down, go to www.systemofadown.com and www.systemofadownonline.com.

To find out more about the Armenian National Committee of America and the Armenian Genocide, as well as how you can help, check out www.anca.org.

For your free copy of the U.S. Constitution, or to respond to this article, email mark10_18@yahoo.com.

For your free copy of the U.S. Constitution or to respond to this column, email mark10_18@yahoo.com.

Copyright 2005, Jonathan Downard

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