System rages with ideas, not bombast


February 23, 2002



In terms of musical innovations and creative songwriting, Incubus and System of a Down are the two bands that have risen farthest above the formulaic nu-metal flock.

But where the former lays back with lyrics that are firmly in the old-fashioned hippie mold, the latter is eloquently agitating for radical change (its favorite enemy: the forces of global corporatization). To put it in '60s terms, think of the difference between the Grateful Dead and the MC5. Then increase the tempos and decrease the attention span.

"We are living in a world of guided missiles and misguided men," System vocalist Serj Tankian intoned at one point doing a sold-out show Thursday night at the Aragon, offering a typical example of his band's thought-provoking approach.

The Los Angeles quartet is the most aggressively political rock band since Rage Against the Machine to find mainstream success (its second album, "Toxicity," debuted at No. 1 shortly before Sept. 11). But the group's sociopolitical critiques are, if anything, much more sophisticated, informed and subtly nuanced.

Unlike Zach de la Rocha (or Bono, to cite another example from outside the rap-rock genre), Tankian seems to disdain preaching, even if he does dress like a priest. The only thing that he actively advocates is that his audience start thinking for itself.

It was hard to say whether that message was connecting with the masses at the Aragon. Before the band took the stage, the men in the crowd typically passed the time by urging the women to show their breasts, and the roiling mosh pits that broke out once the show started were as pointlessly brutal as any in recent years.

But at least System was trying to elevate the level of discourse with songs such as "Deer Dance," an impressionistic portrait of street actions in L.A. during the 2000 Democratic National Convention. The tune builds to the memorable line, "We can't afford to be neutral on a moving train." And, like most of the group's material, it was as interesting musically as it was lyrically.

Leaping quickly and nimbly from meter-defying, Frank Zappa-style art-rock to Middle Eastern drones, and from rampaging heavy-metal riffs to slow and moody quotes from Pink Floyd's "The Wall," guitarist Daron Malakian, bassist Shavo Odadjian and drummer John Dolmayan (all second-generation Armenian Americans who met in a community school in L.A.) showed more imagination and technique in one ever-changing four-minute jam than most of their peers display in an entire set.

Still at the beginning of what will hopefully be a long journey, System proved that it could be the band that gets Generation Y to realize that rock is more than mere high-energy entertainment. Lord knows, somebody needs to do the job.

Opening for the group: the long-running Maryland quartet Clutch, who showed considerable improvement from the last time I saw them in the same role at the same venue. This time out, Clutch thankfully offered some solid songwriting to go along with its trademark sound, a mix of minimalist metallic crunch and free-flowing funk.