"Ladies and gentlemen, this
is not a test," guitarist Daron Malakian said.
With a vocoder transforming
his words into a robotic drone, Malakian's announcement opened and closed
the ferocious 75-minute set that System of a Down played Tuesday night at
Metro. But a test is exactly what this rare small-club gig was.
Since its self-titled
debut in 1998, the Los Angeles progressive-metal quartet has risen to the
level of an arena headliner while maintaining its position as one of the
strangest and most inventive bands in hard rock. The Metro show was one of
10 club gigs intended to prime the promotional pump -- or test the market,
if you prefer -- as the group gears up for the May 17 release of its third
album. (Coldplay is doing the same thing at Metro on Friday.)
System of a Down hasn't
been prolific on the recorded front. "Mezmerize/Hypnotize" -- which is
considered a double album, though the second disc won't be issued until the
fall -- is its first release since 2001's "Toxicity." Yet while its fans are
hungry for new music, and the whole purpose of this club tour is to generate
excitement for it, the group played hardly any fresh material at Metro.
Whether the band thought
its fans would be unfamiliar with the new songs -- unlikely, since many have
already downloaded the disc -- or it's paranoid about its music leaking in
advance of the release -- a lost cause, since it already has -- System of a
Down played it safe and stuck to old favorites such as "Chop Suey,"
"Spiders," "Mr. Jack" and "Sugar," which we've been hearing in concert for
Of course, "playing it
safe" is a relative term for a group as idiosyncratic as this one. Malakian,
vocalist Serj Tankian, bassist Shavo Odadjian and drummer John Dolmayan
first came together at an Armenian Christian school a decade ago. They
remain dedicated to informing the world about the Turkish genocide of 1.5
million Armenians in 1915 -- the first gig of this club tour was at
California's annual Sunday's Souls benefit for that cause last week -- and
their music is peppered with radical political philosophizing somewhere to
the left of Noam Chomsky and Rage Against the Machine.
System of a Down is
capable of bursts of pile-driver thrash as intense as any hard-core band and
eruptions of shred guitar and double-bass drumming as punishing as the best
death metal bands. But these are interspersed with beautiful,
pseudopsychedelic arena-rock hooks, passages of traditional Middle Eastern
folk music and flourishes of progressive-rock virtuosity that could be
lifted from the weirdest pages of the Frank Zappa songbook.
Through it all, Tankian
conjured a rock 'n' roll version of the turn-of-the-century anarchist
standing on a soapbox advocating revolution as the rhythm section shifted
gears faster than the winning driver at the Indy 500.
Malakian is the group's
secret weapon, however. The least attractive of an already ugly bunch, the
diminutive, balding but still long-haired guitarist often sounded as if he
were playing three parts at once -- delivering rhythm, lead and outer space
noise -- while simultaneously adding the sweeter harmonies to the choruses
(Tankian can't actually sing, but Malakian can) and the occasional "Voice of
Satan" deep bass growl.
Arena rock doesn't get
any more inspired than this. "Mezmerize/ Hypnotize" is certain to keep the
band in that forum -- the group has announced a coming tour with fellow
new-wave prog-rockers the Mars Volta -- and despite a fiasco with ticket
sales that shut many of the faithful out of the show, the Metro gig was a
special intimate treat.