SYSTEM OF A DOWN has done it again. With its third record (not including the "Steal This Album!" collection of leftovers from 2002), the band has created another work of thoroughly eccentric, tuneful, and heavy metallic rock that mixes a wide range of influences, adds a dash of loopy, surreal humor, and ends up being one of the most original metal efforts of the year.
Or maybe I should say half of one of them, since "Mezmerize" is just fifty percent of a complete work called "Mezmerize/Hypnotize", with the "Hypnotize" portion arriving sometime this fall. It'll be interesting to see if the band can sustain its creative streak with that second group of songs, but in any case, the Armenian-American quartet is off to a solid start here.
"Mezmerize" is a much more straightforward work than 2001's brilliant and diverse "Toxicity", with nearly every song smashing through the starting gate and going through any number of dizzying and often dazzling mood, tempo and rhythm changes. At first, the effect is a little hard to take — it's as if the band is just trying to thrash its way through each song — but with more listens, the intricacy of the tunes comes through.
It only takes one listen, however, to realize that this may be the catchiest set of songs SYSTEM has yet recorded. "Revenga", the lunatic "Cigaro", "Violent Pornography" and "Old School Hollywood" (which sounds a little like a metal version of STYX's "Mr. Roboto") all have immediate and infectious choruses that stand out amidst the tumult and chaos of the verses. Guitarist Daron Malakian (who also co-produced with Rick Rubin and wrote the bulk of the music) comes up with one great, equally memorable riff after another, tapping into familiar sounds from generations past but adding his own bizarre twist to each.
Where Malakian isn't as strong, however, is in the vocal department. For all intents and purposes, SYSTEM OF A DOWN has become a band with two lead vocalists (the credits list Malakian as "vocals, guitar" and erstwhile frontman Serj Tankian as "vocals, keyboards"), which has succeeded for some groups but doesn't necessarily work well here. Tankian has one of the most unusual and distinctive vocal styles of the past few years, but Malakian often comes across as whiny and more of an emo singer than anything else. It's far from a fatal flaw, and sometimes the cross-cutting between the two works, but Tankian is easily the superior singer.
All in all, however, this compact (37-minute) record is strong from start to finish. "B.Y.O.B." combines thrash, punk and reggae into one furious mix, while "Cigaro" and "This Cocaine Makes Me Feel Like I'm On This Song" are just pure blast-speed bursts of musical and lyrical insanity. On the other hand, "Sad Statue", "Question!" and "Lost In Hollywood" prove that SYSTEM can mix heaviness with poignancy, with "Sad Statue" in particular a near-perfect combination of both and one of the album's highlights.
The amazingly schizophrenic style extends to the lyrics as well: whereas a tune like "This Cocaine…" offers up the unforgettable phrase, "Gonorrhea gorgonzola," the band is also able to serve up powerful statements with simple clarity, like on "B.Y.O.B.": "Why don't presidents fight the war?/Why do they always send the poor?" (although it's doubtful whether that contempible asshole currently fouling the White House would even know how to point a gun).
Whether you fully enjoy SYSTEM's bizarre lyrics and thoroughly frenetic yet precise approach to metal or not, there's no doubt that they are one of the most unique acts to emerge in the last ten years. "Mezmerize" does just what its title says, and this reviewer is looking forward to the rest later this year.