How did one of the weirdest bands in recent memory — System of a Down — become a gigantic phenomenon with No. 1 albums? And why do fans love them so much? Here’s the answer.
One fan summed up the band’s greatness in a 1999 interview — “The music is so fuckin’ original, this shit is so god damn original!”
System of a Down are four guys from Los Angeles, playing alternative metal with hints of middle eastern, folk, prog-rock, jazz and more. They have a playfulness that’s nothing like their counterparts in the nu-metal genre… yet, this cloud of humor is incensed with a sense of seriousness… of geo-politics and philosophy. As Rolling Stone magazine put it, “If System of a Down ain’t Noam Chomsky, it sure ain’t Limp Bizkit’s ‘Nookie,’ either.”
Of all their traits though, it’s probably the family ties of all four its members to the country of Armenia that separates them from any old regular metal band. It’s the country’s musical history, it’s heritage and it’s suffering that bonds all four of the members together, and what gives the band such a unique sound.
The band got their big break by catching the ear of super producer Rick Rubin at a 200-person sold-out Viper Room show in L.A. “I laughed the whole time, it was the funniest thing I had ever seen,” Rubin recalls. “But in a good way. It was just so over the top and so extreme, and like….. Armenian folk dancing with heavy metal riffs and wild political lyrics and screaming, it was crazy music.”
After that Viper Room show, Rubin happily offered the band a record deal on his American Recordings label. The group’s self-titled 1998 debut was a striking, startling combination of speed-metal juxtaposed against Mediterranean melodies. It’s easy to Monday morning quarterback it, and wonder why the band wasn’t signed and promoted sooner, but no one had any context for a band like this before. You can’t fault people in the record industry for not knowing what to do with the band when their first single for example, ‘Sugar,’ mixes jazz style drums and cookie monster growls about “Kombucha mushroom people.”
With their sophomore record, 2001’s Toxicity, System of a Down became more dynamic, really showing off how talented the band was musically. Not only do they sound different than everything else, but from track to track, System of a Down hardly even sound like the same band. One moment they’re blazing away like Pantera fueled by the Dead Kennedys, and the next they’re riffing like Iron Maiden alongside a 16-piece orchestra.
It was a bold move to tie their Armenian influence to their sound, but even more bold is the band’s activist platform — educating their fans about the Armenian genocide of the early 1900s. Truthfully, how many people knew of the Armenian genocide before a mainstream band like System of a Down started talking about it and infusing it in their songs?
“The genocide has affected all of us. Our families and our losses. And it’s also a justice that needs to be resolved,” singer Serj Tankian told the Kevin and Bean Show in 2014. “It’s not just having to do with Armenians, art has to do with genocides still occurring now. It has to do with the fact that there is still not any executable international response to any genocide that might happen right now.”
In 2021, System continued to educate the world about the plight of their homeland, releasing their first new music in more than a decade in response to recent acts of terrorism done by Azerbaijan and Turkey towards the Armenian people.
System, in a lot of ways, has a contradictory sound. It can sound both incredibly juvenile and surprisingly mature. As guitarist Daron Malakian said in an interview, “We like to stay on that verse-chorus type of tradition, except sometimes the verse will be a waltz and the chorus will be hardcore.”
By embracing their Armenian heritage, instead of hiding it, they got to break the so-called rules of heavy metal. No one sounded like System of a Down before, and no one really since, but as Rick Rubin said, they transcended not fitting in, and those are the best artists. Those are the revolutionary bands, and those are the ones that change the world.
Watch more on why System of a Down is popular in the video below.