System of a Down seemed on the verge of taking over the hard-rock universe in 2005. The Southern California-born quartet recorded two critically beloved albums simultaneously and released them at nearly the same time, an audacious move previously pulled off by Guns N’Roses but perhaps no other guitar-based noisemakers.
Then, also a lot like GN’R, SOAD imploded while the takeover was taking place. The childhood friends from Los Angeles’s Armenian community suddenly and without any good excuse stopped recording and touring as a unit.
But with the full support of their fans, critics, heirs and accountants — not necessarily in that order — the band re-formed last year to rekindle the romance and reclaim the revenue left on the table as a result of its untimely hiatus. The comeback is not yet complete: For SOAD’s Tuesday show at Verizon Center, the set list depended strictly on old material, and a black sheet covered much of the arena’s utterly empty upper deck to shield the band from seeing just how many people didn’t show up.
But, those who stayed away were the losers. Layoff be darned, SOAD played 90 minutes of rock-and-roll as intense and theatrical as a mainstream act can deliver. The band’s shtick, and it’s an unbelievably fabulous shtick, remains the same from back in the day: On “Chop Suey” and several other tunes, SOAD came out of slow, show-tuney and Eastern-influenced melodic passages that featured lead singer Serj Tankian’s crooning by leaping into speed metal blitzes powered by bassist Shavo Odadjian and drummer John Dolmayan.
Throw in the comedic spins and goofy dance steps guitarist Daron Malakian executed while the fingers on his left hand ran all over his fretboard, and you’d have to go back to Queen to find as ambitious a combo of art rock and aggression in an arena band.
The crowd couldn’t have been more into the show. Tankian appeared overwhelmed at the amount of noise coming at him from the fans, who seemingly had memorized every time change and lyric at least as well as the singer.
During “Kill Rock and Roll,” the crowd bounced up and down with enough force to get the entire arena shaking in time with the blasts sent out from the stage. SOAD gets pegged as a political band, but other than a brief scream-filled tirade by Malakian about America’s failure to deal with its epidemic of lone-gunman mass killings, the band let its rock do the preaching. And the choir responded. Having thousands of kids shouting “Why don’t presidents fight the war? Why do they always send the poor?” (from the anti-Iraq invasion opus, “BYOB”) while running into each other at full speed provided a roomful of ecstasy, the empty upper deck notwithstanding.
If there was anything to quibble about from the night, it’s that Tankian, for all the positive feedback he was getting from ticket buyers, wasn’t throwing himself into his work as much as he did in his pre-hiatus performances. While Malakian and Odadjian traversed the stage and head-banged at every turn, Tankian rarely strayed from his front-and-center spot. And his wardrobe of regular-guy jeans and a regular-guy gray T-shirt and a pair of regular-guy white tennis shoes clashed with the wholly irregular and grandiose music his combo cranked.
But so what if the singer could use a more theatrical wardrobe and a couple of 5-hour Energy drinks to keep up with what’s going on around him? System of a Down still delivers a fantastic rock-and-roll show, so fantastic that the global takeover they only threatened in the past decade might yet still happen.
McKenna is a freelance writer.