System of a Down might be one of my favorite bands of all time. I’ve gotten more listens out of them than perhaps any other CDs I own (barring Queens of the Stone Age). When I used to play World of Warcraft, it was System that accompanied me.
As a young rebellious teenage living in the Era of the Iraq War, also having been raised on a dripping diet of heavy metal since I was three years old, System of a Down represented the anti-conformist spirit of my soul. I was at once with the original metal heads of the eighties, and the intellectual upstarts of my generation. Moreso than Green Day’s American Idiot, I felt connected to the powerful music that backed System of a Down. Upon listening to more albums, it was clear that, unlike Green Day, rebellion was a way of life for these guys. Hard headed anti-conformist, intellectual poets who sang about brain washing through the media, prisons, culture, religion, and other sources, pushing an agenda of information, anti-censorship, and knowledge of the Armenia Genocide, System of a Down’s members weren’t here just because of one war or one presidency or one event in a history.
While Mesmerize may have been my intro to SOAD, it has led me to yet another one of my very favorite bands. System of a Down is heavy metal in every sense of the word, but Serj Tankian’s vocal range, combined with his unique style of singing and gibberish vocalization (apparently a style known as Dada) showed more novelty than Distrubed’s lead singer, and likewise, their music was not tied down to any traditional sense of what had come before.
Moreso than perhaps any other band, System of a Down presents a style of Nu Metal that defined the generation. Like the band in my previous Top 10 (Queens of the Stone Age) you can’t really point to another band and say, “Yeah sort of like those guys.” System of a Down is one of the best bands to come out from the millennium. With that said, lets take a look into what I feel is the very best from the very best. Without further ado, let’s start this list.
Honorable Mention – Vicinity of Obscenity
Favorite Lyric: “Do we all / learn defeat / from the whores / with bad feet?”
Description: This song makes my Honorable Mention because I felt like it was the most deserving song that I couldn’t give a spot too. That being said, this song was in the running until the very end and there’s a reason why. The song progresses from its simple beginnings into one of the most crazed and insane songs that even System of a Down has. Banana Terracotta pie? What the hell is a terracotta?
Even when you look up the lyrics (not that you need to as the lyrics are surprisingly clear in this song) the meaning isn’t exactly clear. Is it about sex? Is it about sex toys? Sexually transmitted disease? What is clear is that the song is a circus of high pitched lyrics, fast paced guitar and drum work, but ultimately what sells the song is the actual chorus. The music her just slows down and is groovy. It shows well the range that System has at its disposal and sells Serj Tankian’s ability to do great operatic vocals and crazed vocals (seriously I’ve never heard a singer who could both impress me with the beauty and range of his voice, and also be able to sound like he’s angry enough to murder me slowly… often in the same song).
#10 – Psycho
Favorite Lyric: “So you want the world to stop?”
Description: Of the two SOAD songs that seem to be about Cocaine, I pick the longer more elegant one (not that there’s anything wrong with Mesmerize’s This Cocaine makes me feel like I’m on this song… its just as bat shit as the title). This song doubles as being about groupies and focuses on a rather hyped up chanting chorus. It takes time however to add in the emotional aspect as well, with soft whispery lyrics that combine with the previous chant to create a sad mood to the song as well, a feeling of coming down or being down perhaps. The outro guitar solo really sells home this aspect of the song.
This is the subtext of a lot of System songs. They will represent the viewpoint of an ideology while simultaneously villianizing or criticizing it (see: Violent Pornography). They probably don’t really enjoy the coked up groupies that no doubt assault them after shows, but it also critiques the need to be seen or recognized. For that, this song gets props. But even this fun exciting song is only number 10.
#9 – Toxicity
Favorite Lyrics: “You! What do you own, the world? How do you own disorder?”
Description: Perhaps its criminal to put this song so low. This is arguably one of the most popular System of a Down songs and for good reason. Of course popular doesn’t always mean good (although as we’ll see with this list… well… we’ll see ;] )
The song starts off with some nice guitar plucks before exploding into the chorus. The silence in this song sort of allows it to just be about the emotion. Then the verse comes in with the same guitar plucks from before and then Serj starts singing… just some random sounding nonsense (Life through the eyes of a tire hub?), of course the important part is that it sounds nice and poetic. The chorus follows in this, although now you can tell that whatever he’s singing about is anger, and its here where the song shows that maybe its about anarchy against the government.
Well, either way the music rocks.
#8 – Ddevil
Favorite Lyrics: “Shake your spear at shakespeare!” / “Stupid people do stupid things, smart people outsmart each other, then themselves.”
Description: The only crime in this song is how short it is. Everything about this song just blasts with energy that you can only find in heavy metal. Serj Tankian shows just how crazy his voice (and lyrics for that matter) can get. The song itself is a blasting deep bassy heavy metal song with a catchy snare drum that explodes into cymbals in the chorus. The final lyric of the song perhaps says it best, “The devil is so lovely.”
Okay so this song is on here not just for how musically great it is, but also how smart it is. The lyrics are thought out and intelligent. The excitement level is possibly higher than any other System of a Down song. The very first time I heard this song I thought to myself, “well those lyrics are made to piss someone off.” But that I think underlies the real meaning of this song, intended or not. This song shows the legitimacy of heavy metal as an art form. Sure he says, “the Devil is so lovely,” but what is that devil exactly? Not too long ago that was the sound of heavy metal or the way lyrics were sung. But sincerely, “shake your spear at shakespeare,” is probably one of the most inventive lyrics I’ve heard in quite some time.
#7 – Sad Statue
Favorite Lyrics: “You and me we’ll all go down in history with a sad statue of liberty and a generation that didn’t agree.”
Description: The first of many Mesmerize songs on this list, Sad Statue starts out simply enough introducing the rift, a basic drum beat as the back drop. Then the verse starts up and its rocking out and excited, unlike the last two songs, the main verse lyrics make sense, even if they’re a bit tangential. Then the chorus tells us that its a bit reversed from the normal formula, we have excited verses and a calm slowed down almost mournful chorus.
Its really the tone of the song that sells it so well. One of System of a Down’s central aspects is their rebellious spirit, but this is a very patriotic style song. Stark criticism of nationalistic impulses tends to be largely hated on, but what they make in the chorus is the real feeling that usually fuels criticism of one’s nation, sadness.
#6 – Radio/Video
Favorite Lyrics: N/A
Description: This song was more or less tied with Sad Statue. I couldn’t quite decide which one I liked better, and this song gets the higher spot, but its more of a tie. What makes this song so wonderfully wonderful is its rhythm. It opens with just the guitars playing together, brings in some light drums, then launches into the chorus, loud and raucous and driving. The vocal work is probably the most notable part of the chorus, or the step down with all the instruments at the end of the chorus.
Then the song’s beat comes through in the verses. The off-beat ska style drums is made heavier with thick bass and snare notes. The guitar imitates the hi-hat’s syncopation. The voices whisper sweet odd sentences. Throughout the song, the musicians just play with the same song and beats, and then the timing. Throughout the slow downs, build-ups, absence of certain instruments, reintroduction of instruments, the bridge build up in particular gets slowly more and more heavy and faster and faster while the singers lend their vocals to the increasing rhythm.
But what’s most interesting is the beat itself. It’s so light and high-pitched, but not in the near whiny way a lot of systems high pitched music is. Instead, we get an experimentation in beat and without really saying much in the lyrics the song says a lot about its instrumentation. Truly a great.
#5 – Chop Suey!
Favorite Lyrics: There you go create another fable / you wanted to!
Description: This one had to be on here somewhere. One of System’s break out songs back in the days. The intro shows off their good guitar work and drums but the transition quickly shows off that this song is about something viciously wrong. The music is just beautiful. The guitar and drums mix well, the lyrics and fast and beautiful. You can tell there’s an accusatory tone in the repetition of, “you wanted to.”
The bridge shout of “father!” The inclusion of piano notes in the last chorus. It’s clear that the song is targetting a religious subject. Whether it is more a general discussion of martyrdom or if it is mentioning Jesus specifically is undetermined. Clearly, the context of the song is taking the viewpoint of several views here. Someone is committing suicide that you should trust in. Someone is also feeling completely abandoned. If we take it as a reference to Jesus on the cross, we get a very intense story of religious distrust, questioning, guilt, and loss of faith!
#4 – Hypnotize
Favorite Lyrics: “Her dreams and her country left with no one there”
Description: We start with guitar and a quiet high hat. The bass guitar enters as well. Then the drums increases and the hi hat gets more and more open as the song launches. The instruments in this song remain relatively attached to their beats, mostly supporting the excellent vocals singing about Tienanmen Square. The second verse talks about a girl, misplaced, and distrustful of a him. The drums beat on the toms for the chorus lead-in.
The bridge becomes an instrumental, the guitars playing high-pitched semi-mariachi riffs. Meanwhile a backing guitar clicks small riffs. Then the song wraps up with a loud chanting, before finishing up with just Daron holding out, “girl.”
The song is very much about brainwashing. But it also makes mention to national pride, homegrown love of ones country, and the ways in which advertisments play into nationalism and hatred… perhaps. What’s so drawing is the singing, Daron and Serj are at the top of their game for this one.
#3 – Aerials
Favorite Lyrics: “Life is a waterfall / we’re one in the river and one again after the fall.”
Description: System of a Down’s wonderful pick-driven riff that centers on vocals of life and death. Just like any epic song about life and death, we are given a riff that holds out notes and a drum beat that drives it all. As with hypnotize, we see the music supporting the vocals, but more importantly the music plays a big part in the song. After the second verse, the bridge allows the drums to solo a bit, then we get to the main chant of the song. They end the song with some light instruments and singing.
An interpretation of this song offered by me: The whole business of the river is about life and death. My chosen lyrics represent that life, birth and death, are the passage of water falling. The one in the river and again after the fall is a representation of a before and after life. The chorus like lyrics, “We are the ones that want to play, always want to go, but never want to stay,” could be read as, we are the ones who choose to live, but in the end we are all going to die eventually. “We are the ones that want to choose, always to play but we never want to lose.” is another discussion of how we want to choose when to die, but not die in the first place.
“Aerials” in this interpretation, may be in references to how one views life and death. If you can see the whole picture it may not be as scary to die. But that’s what I gather from it.
This advanced of a discussion about choice lyrics offers one of the few metaphorical passages in System of a Down’s library. It’s not nonsense, and its meaning is not directly spoken to us. To be fair, this metaphorical nature was in quite a few number of songs on this album.
#2 – Old School Hollywood
Favorite Lyrics: Old school hollywood baseball x 50
Description: Hey its my list and I love this song. Perhaps the most alien of system of a downs song, the techno backing track is different for them. Using the robot voice layer adds something to the song too. What gets me the most are the verses. We see the syncopated drum beat come back. The techno guitar work in the back helps out. Daron has never sung so obnoxiously, and it works well.
The choruses have one of the most exciting and addictive drum beat ever. In keeping with the song, the cymbals are being knocked out of the park.
What’s the song about though? The names they mention, Jack Gilardi and Franky Avalone and Tony Danza. Supposedly, Daron was at a celebrity baseball game where he and some other folks were strongly ignored, giving edge to the lyrics, “standing in the sun I’m wasting my time.” Arguably other folks were given more focus, which may be why Jack Gilardi is ten feet tall. Something about the robot filter makes me think of the way in which people are marketed though.
Either way, my argument for this song is its intense rhythm, and extreme uniqueness in the system of a down library, and the expertise with the way it is handled.
#1 – B.Y.O.B.
Favorite Lyrics: “You depend on our protection yet you feed us lies from the tablecloth.”
Description: In what can only be the purest definition of the idea that the best one is the most obvious one, BYOB is my number one System of a Down song. Everything that represents the band can be found here. Pure rebellion in its truest form, metaphorically obscure lyrics, critical direct shout outs, excellently fast paced melodic metal, slow paced rhythmic beats, the song has its all.
Its impossible to talk about this song out of context. Clearly, a criticism of the Iraq War back in 2003. It joins the ranks of American Idiot as a direct response to the wide spread media censorship of criticism of the American Government during this moment in history. BYOB, bring your own bomb, is a song about utter hypocrisy. “Where the fuck are you? Why don’t presidents fight the war?” These aren’t questions being asked, these are statements being said. They are meant to give thought to the listener.
The music itself is wonderfully varied, as I’ve described. System of a Down went a step above and beyond Green Day with this one. Green Day made a song on an album and spent the rest of it whining about growing up (great album but still) System of a Down has made entire albums devoted to this criticism. They were a breath of fresh air in an era of stagnancy. They have forever shaped music and if there was one song that cemented anything, it was this one.
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Next Top 10: Flyleaf Songs