System of a Down: Some Very Heavy Metal

Guitarist Daron Malakian, above, and singer Serj Tankian perform at 9:30. After a long hiatus, the band is back on the road in advance of two new CDs.
Guitarist Daron Malakian, above, and singer Serj Tankian perform at 9:30. After a long hiatus, the band is back on the road in advance of two new CDs. (Photos By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
By Dave McKenna
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 13, 2005

There was a big-event aura Wednesday around the 9:30 club, where System of a Down played a semi-surprise show.

Tickets to see the Southern California quartet, one of the few metal bands that critics and kids root on with equal vigor, only went on sale the morning of the concert. Many who made it inside had been on or around the premises for more than 24 hours by showtime. Though onstage for just 60 minutes, SOAD made the wait worthwhile, delivering a performance as pummeling and cathartic as rock gets.

It helped that followers of the band are accustomed to waiting. SOAD, formed in the mid-1990s by four Armenian American friends, is now on a short club tour to publicize the upcoming release of not one but two CDs, "Mezmerize" and "Hypnotize." SOAD's 2001 CD, "Toxicity," sold millions of copies, produced multiple hit singles and left the band poised to kick Metallica off the hard-rock throne. To take advantage of that incredible momentum, SOAD released . . . nothing new. Now, after a four-year wait, the band is throwing it all at the fans over the next few months (just as Guns N' Roses waited four years before following its career-making smash, "Appetite for Destruction," with "Use Your Illusion" Vols. I and II).

For Axl Rose and the boys, the time off was a harbinger of implosion. Yet based on the 9:30 club show, SOAD has emerged from its hiatus prepared to assume control of the universe. Though most popular rock acts avoid political screeds, SOAD is full of 'em, and the fans help get the message out by memorizing and screaming along with every word. The show opened with "B.Y.O.B.," a new tune that rages against the Iraq invasion. On it, vocalist Serj Tankian, whose wild hair and beard give him the look of a guy who hasn't worked since the Renaissance Festival left town, got the audience to pump fists and shout lines such as "Why don't presidents fight the war? Why do they always send the poor?" (SOAD has donated money and energy toward creating awareness of the slaughter of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during World War I.) The music is far more complex than most metal. A typical SOAD tune mixes Middle Eastern phrases with death-metal guitar -- think the soundtrack of "Fiddler on the Roof" done by the Dead Kennedys. Daron Malakian's opening guitar solo on "War?" set a "Hava Nagila" mood before bassist Shavo Odadjian and drummer John Dolmayan kicked in with room-shaking bombast. Tankian led the crowd in what sounded like a Gregorian chant in the midst of "Aerials." During "Toxicity," the entire room screamed "disorder!" over and over. On the floor of the club, where members of a sweaty and tattooed horde had been throttling each other from the start, the words seemed redundant.

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