5 Wild System of a Down Tracks that Exemplify Their Eclecticism

Since their major-label breakthrough in 1998, Armenian American metal quartet System of a Down have occupied a special and unique space in the heavy metal ecosystem. They combine thrashing musical elements with diverse genres and their own cultural influences, plus their uncanny ability to shift dynamics and tempos on a dime, into very quirky, expressionist songs. Their body of work across their five releases is among the best in the genre.

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In his new memoir, Down with the System, frontman Serj Tankian describes System this way: “A band of Armenian-Americans playing a practically unclassifiable clash of wildly aggressive metal riffs, unconventional tempo-twisting rhythms, and Armenian folk melodies, with me alternately growling, screaming, and crooning lyrics that could pivot from avant-garde silliness to raging social-political rants in the space of a single line.”

The following five tracks exemplify the expansive ethos of this Grammy Award-winning and pioneering heavy metal band. There are few artists who have managed to combine heavy metal theatricality and avant-garde expressionism the way that System of a Down has. Sure, they are known for blistering bangers like “Boom!” and “Chop Suey!” but they have ventured down many different musical avenues and often on the same trip.

“Peephole” from System of a Down (1998)

Ever ready to blend different sounds together and make them sound cohesive, System manage to shift from an ambient intro to oompa-ish circus sounds to frenetic metal to gothic-tinged riffs with ease, keeping the whole song in waltz time as a through line. As much as these quick transitions might feel strange to some, the band keeps it lively. It’s controlled chaos that can only come from a group that knows how to play with and against each other. SOAD played this live last year for the first time in a decade.

“Arto” from Toxicity (2001)

System have always brought in Armenian folk influences into their music, and this is the purist example. At a little over two minutes, this closing track from their biggest album is their version of the Armenian Apostolic Church hymn “Der Voghormia.” The intense piece is performed to dramatic effect with vocals, percussion, and a double-reed instrument called a duduk, which is contributed by Armenian singer and multi-instrumentalist Arto Tunçboyacıyan. Rarely played live by the band, Tankian and Tunçboyacıyan performed a live version of “Der Voghormia” last year with the CSUN Symphony Orchestra at the Soraya Theater in Los Angeles as part of his Invocations operatic suite. From a quartet that really mixes things up, it’s just as metal to end an album with this song as it is to open up with a massive banger.

“I-E-A-I-A-I-O” from Steal This Album! (2002)

Tankian has admitted that he purposefully tried to trip himself up with the rapid-fire alliteration of lyrics like: Peter’s p—er picked another pickle bearin’ p–sy pepper / Peter’s p—er picked another pickle bearin’ p–sy pepper, why? Whoever can sing that 10 times fast should get an award. The singer has admitted to messing up the lyrics on stage himself. “I-E-A-I-A-I-O” serves up a classic System interplay of tightly restrained riffing and outright aggression, a combo that works well in their music. As an added bonus, the band also quotes the Knight Rider theme song.

“Radio/Video” from Mezmerize (2005)

This is a classic System collision of electrified Armenian folk music with aggro metal choruses, and the gentle, reggae-ish mid-section speeds up into the song’s bombastic climax. The simple, repeating lyrics deal with the surprise at becoming famous and getting lots of airplay, and it’s the band’s playing, dynamic shifts, and Tankian and Malakian’s vocal interplay that make this stand out. Of note: The Danny and Lisa referenced in the song are real people. As guitarist Daron Malakian told Revolver in 2018: “I started collecting records when I was 3 or 4 years old, and that [Paul Stanley’s solo album] was the first one that I got my hands on. My neighbors were Danny and Lisa, who I sing about in ‘Radio/Video’ with System—they had that record and it ended up at my apartment.” And they ended up in this song too.

“Vicinity of Obscenity” from Hypnotize (2005)

A deeper cut from the band’s fifth album, “Vicinity of Obscenity” is an earful in under three minutes. It manages to move between quirky vocals and guitar sounds to heightened aggression to disco-ish vibes. The ambient feedback outro transitions into the moody “She’s My Heroin,” a song that also resides in its own universe. Tankian has stated that his lyrics here were generated stream of consciousness style. That makes sense when one listens to wordplay like Is there a perfect way of holding you baby? / Vicinity of obscenity in your eyes / Terracotta terracotta terracotta pie. The spirit of the late Frank Zappa permeates much of System’s work, and Tankian is certainly a fan.

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