I first got into System of a Down in 2002 when I heard my brother's copy of Toxicity. I guess for me, 2002 was just the right year for frustrated, angry, loud metal music, because I almost devoured that album during the first month I listened to it. Daron Malakian's guitar lines came at me fast and furious, and Serj Tankian's voice was like nothing I'd ever heard before: angry and melodic, with an almost-comic delivery that really intrigued me. Steal This Album wasn't as strong an effort as Toxicity, but it was still a good album that had them expanding lyrically and musically. Their music was intelligent, melodic, and chaotic, and I loved every minute of it. With two albums (this was before I'd listened to their equally great self-titled debut), System of a Down had carved out their own important niche in the "Angry and Loud" section of my musical palate.
When I picked up the new album Mezmerize, I anticipated another very strong outing, full of vitriolic lyrics and frustrating guitar lines, and I got that in spades. With lyrics like B.Y.O.B.'s "Why don't presidents fight the war? / Why do they always send the poor?" the band keeps churning out their anti-authoritarian views (the recent U.S. election gave them plenty of fuel for their musical furnace). The lyrics are sometimes repetitive - one song has a total of six different lines - but they're usually meaningful and almost always singable.
They also keep pushing the limits of what traditional "hard rock" music has to sound like: I've always enjoyed bands that experiment with different sounds, and S.o.a.D. has a wide range of influences to draw from. For example, one of my favourite songs on the album, "Radio/Video" is metal peppered with influences from Armenian folk music. Another song "Question!", goes back and forth between choppy guitars and near-shouting to gentle acoustic guitars and a beautiful lyricism - and there's a stringed instrument in the background I can't identify, but it's nothing that lesser hard-rock groups would use. The songs shift tempo, dynamic, and lyrical content with a very calculated chaos, and it's a place I really like to be.
Except - it's not all good. There are two things that keep this album from matching the quality of those that came before it. I was suspicious of the first one before I even heard the music, from the moment I opened the package. On Toxicity, Malakian is credited as "Guitars / Vocals"; on Mezmerize, he's credited as "Vocals / Guitars". This is reflected by his vocal output on the album, and it is NOT a good thing. His voice is good for harmony vocals, especially high backing vocals, but he is not cut out to be a lead vocalist - he just doesn't have the chops to carry a whole song. Or even half of a song.
The other frustrating point isn't a quality that's overarching through the album, but rather one single song. "Old School Hollywood" is an example of all the things that can go wrong with a S.o.a.D. song going wrong all at once. Lyrics that make no sense, Malakian's whiny vocals on what passes for a verse, and the music almost sounds like Andrew W.K. (note: that means bad). Plus, having it back-to-back with the similarly-titled and far superior "Lost in Hollywood" just sets you up for unfavourable comparisons.
So really, aside from those two things, I can recommend this album with only a little trepidation. If I was going to give it a number ranking - and I am - I'd give it 7 out of 10; respectable, but not great. I recommend it to people who like hard rock or people who like Michael Moore, or people who like hard rock and Michael Moore.
Recommended Tracks: Radio/Video; Question!; Sad Statue; B.Y.O.B.