System plays blistering test-market set


May 5, 2005


"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 years now.

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.