System Of A Down’s magnum opus ‘Toxicity’ turns 20 — retrospective review
We're about two decades removed from the peak of the nu metal era, an era that's been re-entering the current music discourse in the forms of nostalgia, continued hatred, and re-evaluations, especially this year, a year that brought a Woodstock '99 documentary to HBO and Limp Bizkit to Lollapalooza in the same week. Love it or hate it, one of the most fascinating things about nu metal is that it was the last time in pop music history that heavy music ruled the airwaves. These bands competed for fame with (and often mocked) bubblegum pop stars, a feat that seems next to impossible in today's music industry. For all of nu metal's shortcomings, it introduced heavy music to an entire generation who might not have ever heard it otherwise, and that's a beautiful thing.
As hard as it is to believe how popular nu metal became, it's even harder to believe the popularity of System Of A Down. Even within the context of that freakishly heavy genre -- a genre System Of A Down were grouped with but never sounded like any other band in -- System Of A Down made deeply weird, confrontational, abrasive music. Of all the major nu metal bands, few outside of Slipknot could claim to be heavier. And yet, they appealed to so many people who otherwise didn't listen to much or any metal. And you don't need to look very hard to be reminded of this; just walk into any party where someone's blasting "Aerials," "Toxicity," or especially "Chop Suey!" and you'll find tons of non-metalhead millennials yelling every word. These songs really connected with people both in and outside of the metal community, and they continue to resonate today, 20 years after System Of A Down released the magnum opus that's home to all three, Toxicity.
Nu metal was stereotyped as a vessel for needless, aimless, American white male rage, but that never described System Of A Down, a band made up of four members of the Armenian diaspora who used this landmark album to address America's prison system, the war on drugs, drug abuse, police brutality, and the 1915-1917 Armenian genocide that vocalist Serj Tankian's own grandparents survived. (They also provided commentary on Hollywood stereotypes, in both their lyrics and with the album cover.) And they communicated their messages through music that was genuinely innovative. What SOAD did share with other nu metal bands was a chunky, groove-forward approach that eschewed the flashy guitar work of traditional heavy metal, but they had a unique take on the genre that none of their peers shared. Toxicity owes as much to the simplicity and intensity of hardcore punk as it does to crooned balladry, and it channels the shape-shifting chaos of '70s progressive rock into the blunt force of '90s alternative rock and metal. (As with many nu metal bands, Faith No More seem like a clear influence.) It incorporates the sounds and melodies of Armenian and Middle Eastern folk music, and SOAD augment metal's typical guitar/bass/drums formula with sitar, string arrangements, chanting, and more. As a vocalist, Serj can switch from an operatic howl to a throat-shredding scream on a dime, and the approach to melody that he and guitarist/backing vocalist Daron Malakian brought to the band was unlike anything else happening in mainstream American music at the time (or since). Their sense of rhythm and song structure was just as atypical as their melodies, with songs that would stop and restart on a whim and drastically change tone mid-verse. And no matter how weird or aggressive SOAD got, they always knew how to write a chorus you could sing along to.
Toxicity blew System Of A Down up, topping the charts in both the US and Canada, but the band was no overnight success. They had formed in the mid '90s, and gigged around and put out demos for a few years before catching the attention of Rick Rubin, who signed them to American/Columbia Records in 1997. Rick produced their self-titled debut LP, which came out the following year, and which laid the groundwork for almost all of the musical and thematic ideas that System Of A Down would explore on Toxicity (also produced by Rick). The debut is an excellent album in its own right, but still dwarfed by its successor. With Toxicity, System Of A Down achieved their full vision. You couldn't put the album on without being made aware of its political point of view. Serj does not mince words on album opener "Prison Song," and he sings, speaks, screams, and shouts them so clearly that you don't miss a single one. It's also one of the album's most musically chaotic songs, perfectly setting the tone for the rest of the record, a patchwork quilt of prog-sized epics ("Aerials," "Chop Suey!"), punk-infused rippers ("Shimmy"), metallic breakdowns ("X"), and a song with a rhythm section that sounds like an actual jackhammer ("Bounce"). And for an album that's so maximalist and all-over-the-place, it feels concise and void of filler. Even 20 years later, there's not a song that feels noticeably outdated or skippable.
System Of A Down would release three more albums after Toxicity, all of them similarly high in quality. Toxicity still stands as their finest hour, but SOAD never fell off creatively, and they don't seem like the kind of band who would risk ruining their legacy unless the music was really worth it. It's been over 15 years since they put out an album, and though a followup has long been discussed, Serj has expressed that the band isn't seeing eye to eye on which direction the songwriting should go. (The band did, however, release two new songs in 2020 to raise awareness and money to help with the current crises in Artsakh and Armenia.) As much as a new SOAD album would be a very big deal, it's not worth it to force it. Right now, their five-album discography is a time capsule of a singular band at the peak of their powers, at a time when the world was paying much closer attention than they'd ever pay to a new band like this today. And, 20 years later, Toxicity remains at the forefront of their rock-solid catalog.