As lights flash to the opening, discordant riff of “Prison Song,” the first track of the band’s 2001’s album Toxicity, the shadows of the Armenian-American fourpiece that is System of a Down can be seen, obscured, through the giant curtain that covers the stage. As the introduction continues in its irregular rhythm, tantalizing the crowd with false starts and abrupt pauses, the outline of singer Serj Tankian flashes up next to guitarist Daron Malakian.
The former is smiling, neatly-shaved in a t-shirt and jeans, whilst Malakian stands wide-eyed, still riding that 90s cocaine high: hair down to his waist, clad fully in black. It’s symbolic of the contrasting styles that the two have undertaken since the band’s six-year hiatus, Tankian perusing his jazz-influenced, politically-charged solo career and Malakian joining drummer John Dolmayan for the hyperactive brand of alternative metal that is Scars on Broadway.
Then Serj opens his mouth, lets out a gut-busting growl, and we’re reminded that, for the next couple of hours, we’re here for System of a Down and their unique combination of art rock and modern speed metal that still has some magic to give.
They thunder through the first song, not stopping for breath before moving on to “Soldier Side” – itself acting as an introduction to “B.Y.O.B,” the song that defined 2005’s Mezmerize / Hypnotize. The room bursts in to cries of “dancing in the desert, blowing up the sunshine,” that haven’t had such power behind them since the song’s conception.
Powered by the pounding guitars of Malakian and bassist Shavo Odadjian, the band moves through the heaviest tunes of their second and fourth albums. They stop briefly for 1998’s “Suggestions,” a tune completed by Tankian’s voice moving from hilarious baby whimpering to hell-born shrieks. “Chop Suey” is, of course, pride of place – a song so well-known amongst this generation of metalheads that I can’t help but chuckle to notice a fifty-something Indian woman in a raincoat rising from her seat to nod along.
Yet, despite all their government bashing, System have never been a band to take themselves too seriously. And somewhere between Malakian declaring with heartfelt sincerity that his c**k is indeed “much bigger than yours” and Tankian’s faux-erotic dancing, this was an opinion that was most certainly cemented. Indeed, if anything, the band seems to be enjoying themselves as much as the crowd that grasps at their feet.
In “Forest”, Tankian proclaims “no televisions in the air, no circumcisions on the chair.” They’re the sort of lyrics that left a generation of angst-ridden teenagers searching for hidden meanings, but Tankian’s groin-grasping as he falls to his knees seems to suggest that the band are as bemused as we are – and who really cares?
If there are any criticisms to be had, they come as no surprise. It’s no secret that Tankian has abandoned aggressive vocals for a more melodic approach, and, wisely perhaps, he is not attempting to hide it. He screams when necessary for the song, but the general hostility in the verses of songs like “Deer Dance” and “Psycho” is often lost. Combined with an online hiccup that’s confined many fans to balcony seating, the show is far from the sweat-charged, shirtless raves of System, Tool and Slipknot that gathered in the craters of the 90s.
Nonetheless, by the time the band’s first, most hostile album gets its due towards the show’s end, fists are in the air, fans are jumping over barriers and certain reviewers are itching to join the circle pits. Malakian gives a furious rant, declaring “I hate when assholes shoot up a place for no reason! This is not the America I grew up in!” before ‘Toxicity” leads to “Sugar,” two fan favorites that certainly work to up the sentiment level for this (likely) final tour.
It’s over as quickly as it started, and as we’re left itching for an encore, I realize that there isn’t really anymore material to be played. Steal This Album! remains absent, a fact to be expected considering its little-known status amongst the other albums, but one that contributed to the shortness of the show. Other than that, however, most facets of the band’s career have been covered: a magnificently nostalgic nod back to the late 90s and early 2000s, and one that most currently active mainstream metal bands would struggle to live up to.
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