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Up the System: Band leavens heavy metal sound with Armenian folk melodies

Thursday, August 25, 2005


Star-Ledger Staff

The headliner of an arena rock concert almost always performs an encore, even if the building is half empty and the audience is diffident. But System of a Down, playing for a sold-out, enthusiastic crowd at the Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, Tuesday night, left the stage without one.

By this point in the evening, though, members of this Los Angeles-based quartet had made it clear that they weren’t interested in following anyone else’s rules.

Their songs often blended the raw power of heavy metal with melodies borrowed from Armenian folk music (all four members are Armenian-Americans). Serj Tankian, who sang lead on most songs (as well as playing keyboards and guitar at times), had a crazed glint in his eye, and tended to either bark out his lyrics or soar into quasi-operatic territory. Daron Malakian, who also sang lead occasionally, created an astonishing array of sounds with his guitar, while the rhythm section (bassist Shavo Odadjian, drummer John Dolmayan) cranked out machine-gun rhythms but also made tricky tempo shifts look easy.

They played hard enough to drive the moshers on the arena floor into a frenzy, though the lyrics tended to make political points.

“B.Y.O.B.” was an anti-war song with a sarcastic twist: “Everybody’s going to the party, have a real good time/Dancing in the desert, blowing up the sunshine.”

“Sad Statue” explored similar terrain, more directly: “You and me, we’ll all go down in history with a sad Statue of Liberty, and a generation that didn’t agree.”

In “Prison Song,” Tankian rapped, in a snide tone, “Minor drug offenders fill your prisons, you don’t even flinch/All our taxes paying for your wars against the new non-rich.”

System of a Down clearly has no use for show-business nonsense. Band members wore simple black outfits, and the stage was minimally adorned. The light show was nothing special. Basically, the only thing to look at was Malakian twirling around as he played, or Tankian occasionally breaking into a spastic dance.

This band seems to live in its own musical universe, so it came as a shock when Malakian demonstrated an interest in classic-rock by singing a bit of Neil Young’s “My, My, Hey, Hey (Out of the Blue)” before “Kill Rock’n’ Roll,” a song that will be included on the band’s November album, “Hypnotized” (the sister album to May’s “Mezmerize”). Even more surprisingly, he sang some of Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing” — a very mellow tune, by System of a Down’s standards — before “Aerials,” changing the line, “We are the sultans of swing,” to “We are the System of a Down.”

Songs from “Mezmerize” and the band’s 2001 breakthrough album “Toxicity” dominated the set list, with “Toxicity” material like “Prison Song,” “Aerials” and “Chop Suey!” making the biggest impact. System of a Down may never top that masterpiece, but 10 years after its formation, it hasn’t sold out or softened up in any way.

Performing before System of a Down, the Mars Volta was just as uncompromising, but in a different way. The band, featuring former members of the garage-punk band At the Drive-In, rocked hard for much of the set, but sometimes seemed like a psychedelic jam band, intent on pursuing every possible musical tangent. Most songs had layers of keyboards and percussion; some took left turns with exploratory sax and flute solos. Lead singer Cedric Bixler Zavala howled like a young, thinner-voiced Robert Plant, but tended to be drowned out by his band’s walls of sound.

Opening act Bad Acid Trip — who happen to be signed to Tankian’s record label, Serjical Strike — lived up to their name thanks to Dirk Rogers’ screamed, incomprehensible vocals, though sometimes Keith Aazami’s snaky guitar lines did add a hint of originality.

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