System of a Down
System of a Down performing in Wantagh, New York in 2012
|Also known as|
|Origin||Glendale, California, U.S.|
|Past members||Ontronik Khachaturian|
System of a Down (also known abbreviated as SoaD or just simply as System) is an Armenian-American heavy metal band formed in Glendale, California in 1994. The band currently consists of founding members Serj Tankian (lead vocals, keyboards), Daron Malakian (vocals, guitar) and Shavo Odadjian (bass, backing vocals) as well as John Dolmayan (drums), who replaced original drummer Andy Khachaturian in 1997.
The band achieved commercial success with the release of five studio albums, three of which debuted at number one on the US Billboard 200. System of a Down has been nominated for four Grammy Awards and their song "B.Y.O.B." won a Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance in 2006. The band went on hiatus in 2006 and reunited in 2010; since then, they have performed live occasionally despite having not released any new material since the Mezmerize and Hypnotize albums in 2005. System of a Down has sold over 40 million records worldwide, while two of their singles "Aerials" and "Hypnotize" reached number one on Billboard's Alternative Songs chart.
Serj Tankian and Daron Malakian attended Rose and Alex Pilibos Armenian School as children, although due to their eight-year age difference they did not meet until 1992 while working on separate projects at the same recording studio. They formed a band named Soil with Tankian on vocals and keyboards, Malakian on vocals and guitar, Dave Hakopyan (who later played in The Apex Theory/Mt. Helium) on bass and Domingo "Dingo" Laranio on drums. The band hired Shavo Odadjian (another Rose and Alex Pilibos alumnus) as manager, although he eventually joined Soil as rhythm guitarist. In 1994, after only one live show at the Roxy and one jam session recording, Hakopyan and Laranio left the band.
Demo tapes and signing (1994–1997)
After Soil split up, Tankian, Odadjian, and Malakian formed a new band, System of a Down. The group took its name from a poem that Malakian had written titled "Victims of a Down". The word "victims" was changed to "system" because Odadjian believed that it would appeal to a much wider audience and also because the group wanted their records to be alphabetically shelved closer to their musical heroes, Slayer. Odadjian switched from guitar to bass and passed on his managerial duties to Velvet Hammer Music and Management Group and its founder David "Beno" Benveniste. The band recruited drummer Ontronik "Andy" Khachaturian, an old school friend of Malakian and Odadjian who had played with Malakian in a band called Snowblind during their teens.
In early 1995, System played as "Soil" at the Cafe Club Fais Do-Do, a nightclub in Los Angeles. Shortly after the event, System of a Down made what is known as Untitled 1995 Demo Tape, which was not commercially released but appeared on file sharing networks around the time of the band's success with Toxicity about six years later. Demo Tape 2 was released in 1996. At the beginning of 1997, System of a Down recorded their final publicly released demo tape, Demo Tape 3. In mid-1997, drummer Khachaturian left the band because of a hand injury (he subsequently co-founded The Apex Theory, which included former Soil bassist Dave Hakopyan). Khachaturian was replaced by John Dolmayan.
The band's first official and professionally recorded song was on a collection called Hye Enk ("we're Armenian" in English), an Armenian Genocide recognition compilation in 1997. After playing at notable Hollywood clubs such as the Whisky-A-Go-Go and Viper Room, the band attracted the attention of producer Rick Rubin, who asked them to keep in touch. Showing great interest, the group recorded Demo Tape 4 near the end of 1997, specifically to be sent to record companies. Rubin signed the group to his American/Columbia Records and, with engineer Sylvia Massy, System began laying down tracks that would eventually be released on their debut album. "I loved them," Rubin recalled. "They were my favourite band, but I didn't think anyone was going to like them apart from a small, likeminded group of people like me who were crazy. No one was waiting for an Armenian heavy metal band. It had to be so good that it transcended all of that."
In 1997, the group won the Best Signed Band Award from the Rock City Awards.
Self-titled album (1998–2000)
In June 1998, System of a Down released their debut album, System of a Down. They enjoyed moderate success as their first singles "Sugar" and "Spiders" became radio favorites and the music videos for both songs were frequently aired on MTV. After the release of the album, the band toured extensively, opening for Slayer and Metallica before making their way to the second stage of Ozzfest. Following Ozzfest, they toured with Fear Factory and Incubus before headlining the Sno-Core Tour with Puya, Mr. Bungle, The Cat and Incubus providing support.
In November 1998, System of a Down appeared on South Park's Chef Aid album, providing the music for the song "Will They Die 4 You?" Near the end of the song Tankian can be heard saying, "Why must we kill our own kind?", a line that would later be used in the song "Boom!" Although System of a Down is credited on the album, South Park character Chef does not introduce them as he does most of the other artists featured on the record.
System of a Down's former drummer, Ontronik Khachaturian, briefly reunited with the band at a show at The Troubadour in 1999, filling in on vocals for an ill Tankian. In 2000, the band contributed their cover of the Black Sabbath song "Snowblind" to the Black Sabbath tribute album Nativity in Black 2.
Toxicity and Steal This Album! (2001–2003)
On September 3, 2001, System of a Down had planned on launching their second album at a free concert in Hollywood as a "thank you" to fans. The concert, which was to be held in a parking lot, was set up to accommodate 3,500 people; however, an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 fans showed up. Because of the large excess number of fans, the performance was cancelled by police officers just before the group took the stage. No announcement was made that the concert had been cancelled. Fans waited for more than an hour for the group to appear, but when a banner hanging at the back of the stage that read "System of a Down" was removed by security, the audience rushed the stage, destroying all the band's touring gear (approximately $30,000 worth of equipment) and began to riot, throwing rocks at police, breaking windows, and knocking over portable toilets. The riot lasted six hours, during which six arrests were made. The band's manager, David "Beno" Benveniste, later said that the riot could have been avoided if the group had been permitted to perform or had they been allowed to make a statement at the concert regarding the cancellation. System of a Down's scheduled in-store performance the next day was cancelled to prevent a similar riot.
The group's big break arrived when their second album, Toxicity, debuted at No. 1 on the American and Canadian charts, despite the events of 9/11. The album has eventually achieved 3x multi-platinum certification in the United States It was still on top in America during the week of the 9/11 attacks and the political environment caused by the attacks added to the controversy surrounding the album's hit single "Chop Suey!" The song was taken off the radio as it contained politically sensitive lyrics according to the 2001 Clear Channel memorandum at the time such as "(I don't think you) trust in my self-righteous suicide." Regardless, the video gained constant play on MTV as did the album's second single, "Toxicity". Even with the controversy surrounding "Chop Suey!" (which earned a Grammy nomination), System of a Down still received constant airplay in the United States throughout late 2001 and 2002 with "Toxicity" and "Aerials". In May 2006, VH1 listed "Toxicity" in the number 14 slot in the 40 Greatest Metal Songs.
In 2001, the band went on tour with Slipknot throughout the United States and Mexico. Following a performance in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Odadjian was allegedly harassed, ethnically intimidated, and was physically assaulted by security guards backstage, who then dragged him out of the venue. Odadjian received medical attention from police and later filed a suit against the security company. Despite the incident, the tour was a success and System of a Down and Slipknot went on the Pledge of Allegiance Tour together with Rammstein in 2001.
In late 2001, unreleased tracks from the Toxicity sessions made their way onto the internet. This collection of tracks was dubbed Toxicity II by fans. The group released a statement that the tracks were unfinished material and subsequently released the final versions of the songs as their third album, Steal This Album!, which was released in November 2002. Steal This Album! resembled a burnable CD that was marked with a felt-tip marker. About 50,000 special copies of the album with different CD designs were also released, each designed by a different member of the band. The name of the album is a reference to Abbie Hoffman's counter-culture book, Steal This Book as well as a message to those who leaked the songs onto the internet. The song "Innervision" was released as a promo single and received constant airplay on alternative radio. A video for "Boom!" was filmed with director Michael Moore as a protest against the War in Iraq.
Mezmerize, Hypnotize and hiatus (2004–2006)
Between 2004 and 2005, the group recorded the follow-up to Steal This Album!, a double album, which they released as separate installments six months apart. The releases notably included album cover artwork by Malakian's father, Vartan Malakian, and were designed to connect the two separate album covers. The first album, Mezmerize, was released on May 17, 2005 to favorable reviews by critics. It debuted at No. 1 in the United States, Canada, Australia and all around the world, making it System of A Down's second No. 1 album. First week sales exceeded 800,000 copies worldwide. The lead single "B.Y.O.B.", which questions the integrity of military recruiting in America, worked its way up the Billboard Modern Rock and Mainstream Rock charts, and would go on to win the 2006 Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance. "Question!" was released as the next single, with Shavo Odadjian co-directing the music video. Following the album's release, the band toured extensively throughout the United States and Canada with The Mars Volta and Bad Acid Trip supporting.
The second part of the double album, Hypnotize, was released on November 22, 2005. Like Mezmerize it debuted at No. 1 in the US, making System of a Down, along with The Beatles, rappers 2Pac and DMX, the only artists to ever have two studio albums debut at No. 1 in the same year. Hypnotize was released as the lead single and was followed by Lonely Day and Vicinity of Obscenity, both of which were also released as EPs, including several previously-unreleased cover songs as well as a collaboration with the Wu-Tang Clan. Kill Rock 'N Roll was released as the final promotional single.
Whereas on System of a Down's previous albums most of the lyrics were written and sung by Tankian and the music was co-written by Tankian and Malakian (and sometimes Odadjian), much of the music and lyrics on Mezmerize/Hypnotize were written by Malakian, who also took on a much more dominant role as vocalist on both albums, often leaving Tankian providing keyboards and backing vocals.
In May 2006 saw the UK publication of a biography of the band entitled System of a Down: Right Here in Hollywood by writer Ben Myers. It was published in the US in 2007 through The Disinformation Company. Additionally in 2006, concert footage and interviews with the band concerning the importance of helping create awareness and recognition of the Armenian Genocide were featured in the film Screamers, directed by Carla Garapedian. An interview with Tankian's grandfather, a survivor of the Genocide, was also included in the film as well as Tankian's and Dolmayan's meeting with (then) Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert during which the two musicians campaigned for the United States government's official recognition of the Genocide. Footage of Tankian and Dolmayan marching with protesters outside the Turkish embassy in Washington D.C. was also used in Screamers.
In May as well, the band announced they were going on hiatus. Malakian confirmed the break would probably last a few years, which Odadjian specified as a minimum of three years in an interview with Guitar magazine. He told MTV, "We're not breaking up. If that was the case, we wouldn't be doing this Ozzfest. We're going to take a very long break after Ozzfest and do our own things. We've done System for over ten years, and I think it's healthy to take some rest." System of a Down's final performance before their separation took place on August 13, 2006 in West Palm Beach, Florida. "Tonight will be the last show we play for a long time together," Malakian told the crowd during Sunday's last performance. "We'll be back. We just don't know when."
During the band's hiatus, Malakian formed a band called Scars on Broadway, which was joined by Dolmayan. After one self-titled album, the project became dormant and Dolmayan left the band. However, the band released their long-awaited sophomore album in 2018, under the name Daron Malakian and Scars On Broadway. Dolmayan, alongside working with Scars on Broadway, formed his own band, Indicator, as well as opened Torpedo Comics, an online comic book store. Odadjian pursued his project with RZA of Wu-Tang Clan, a hip-hop group named AcHoZeN, worked on his urSESSION website/record label and performed as a member of funk legend George Clinton's backing band. Meanwhile, Tankian opted for a solo career and released his debut solo album Elect the Dead in the autumn of 2007. He has continued releasing solo albums, recording them almost entirely by himself even after System of a Down reunited.
Reunion and touring (2010–2015)
On November 29, 2010, following several weeks of Internet rumors, System of a Down officially announced that they would be reuniting for a string of large European festival dates in June 2011. Among the announced tour dates included UK's Download Festival, Switzerland's Greenfield Festival, Germany's Rock am Ring/Rock im Park, Sweden's Metaltown, Austria's Nova Rock Festival and Finland's Provinssirock. The reunion tour commenced on May 10, 2011 in Edmonton, Alberta. System's first tour through Mexico and South America began on September 28, 2011 in Mexico City, ending in Santiago, Chile on October 7, 2011. From late February to early March 2012, they headlined five dates at Soundwave festival. This was the band's first visit to Australia since 2005. The band have continued playing around the world. On August 11 and 12, 2012, they played the Heavy MTL and Heavy T.O. music festivals in Montreal and Toronto respectively. In August 2013 System of a Down played at the UK's Reading and Leeds Festivals, among other festivals and venues that year.
System of a Down played their only 2013 US performance at the Hollywood Bowl on July 29; tickets sold out hours after going on sale on March 22.
On November 23, 2014, System of a Down announced the Wake Up The Souls Tour to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. The tour included a free concert in Republic Square in Yerevan, Armenia on April 23, 2015, their first show in the country.
Possible sixth studio album, continued touring (2016–present)
In a November 2016 interview with Kerrang!, drummer John Dolmayan revealed that System of a Down was working on more than a dozen songs for their follow-up to the Mezmerize and Hypnotize albums. Although he stated that the band does not know when the album will be released, he added that, "I want everyone on board and feeling good about it. That's what we're trying to accomplish right now. There's a tremendous amount of pressure on us, though, because it's been 11 years—at least 12 by the time it comes out."
In a video Q&A session with fans on July 2, 2017, Shavo Odadjian was asked about the status of the next album and he responded, "I'm waiting for a new album too. It's not happening. I don't know. I don't know when it's gonna be. Not right now." In a December 2017 interview with Rolling Stone, Serj Tankian said that System of a Down wrote some new material but was uncertain of what to do with it. He then said that he doesn't want to commit to a new album due to the lack of committing to longform touring.
In an April 2018 interview, Daron Malakian said that the band did not abandon the idea of making new material, and made a passing mention that System of a Down was not making any music at that time. Dolmayan said that he is ready to start work on the next album, but that "certain members of my band haven’t been able to make it work for themselves", expressing uncertainty on if it would ever be made.
Malakian singled Tankian out as the reason no new album had yet been released. Tankian detailed his view of the band's past and present conflicts and their overall situation, saying "[A]s we couldn’t see eye to eye on all these points we decided to put aside the idea of a record altogether for the time being." Dolmayan blamed all of the members due to the personal and creative differences that have been preventing them from recording a new studio album. Tankian also expressed uncertainty on whether the new album would be made or not but did not rule out the possibility. He went on to describe how he imagined the album sounding, "It's gotta be organic, it's gotta feel right in every way."
Odadjian said that the band has material written from "like the last 10, 12 years", but is uncertain on if it would form into a System of a Down album or not. He also said that Malakian and Tankian have visual differences on what the album should sound like, and that the band's inner tension had been building far longer than fans would be aware of despite having love and respect for one another nonetheless. He would later say that there is no conflict between the members, expressing confidence that System of a Down would eventually record a new album and claimed that they have material written that would be their best to date. However, Tankian stated that there was no talk of the band recording a new album.
Malakian explained that there is a mixture between the matter of different creative perspectives for the band's hesitation to record a new studio album and the lack of desire to tour; however he did not dismiss the possibility of an album being made, but that it would likely not happen anytime soon. He feels that the fans don't care that the band isn't making an album, "but I think a lot of the fans just want an album." He expressed hopes that the members would get together and record new music but is content with the direction of his band Scars on Broadway, noting about the members' good friendship, "But at the same time, I don't see that happening anytime soon that we're all going to get together and make a new System of a Down album." Malakian said that Tankian and the rest of the band members have been unable to come to an agreement over how to go about making new music, but insists that there is no negativity between them.
Despite System of a Down's ability to perform live, Odadjian expressed disappointment at their inability to record new music, explaining that there has been new material written by the other members in the form of a possible new album but without Tankian's presence no recordings had been made. He questioned why the band still hasn't made an album, citing creative differences as the problem. With the lack of commitment to record new music, Tankian however, is in favor of releasing a collection of previously unreleased System of a Down songs from the band's past album sessions but would have to convince all the members in order to see its release.
With the differences concerning the band members, Dolmayan became uncertain in wanting to make new music anymore. Although he did not want to put Tankian and Malakian at fault for the band's inability to record a new album, he said, "It takes four people to make this band, and it takes four people to unmake it. I think that we're all to blame. I could just blame Daron and Serj, because, quite frankly, they're the primary songwriters, so it's easy to blame them. But it's not just their fault. A lot of it is their fault, but it's not just their fault." Tankian on the other hand, announced that he would release an EP of rock songs that were originally intended to be featured on a System of a Down album.
Musical style, influences, and lyrical themes
System of a Down's lyrics are often oblique or dadaist and have discussed topics such as drug abuse, politics and suicide. "Prison Song" criticizes the War on Drugs whereas Rolling Stone describes "Roulette" as a "scared, wounded love letter". "Boom!", among the band's most straightforward and unambiguous songs, lambasts globalization and spending on bombs and armament. Commenting on the track "I-E-A-I-A-I-O", drummer John Dolmayan said it was inspired by an encounter he had with Knight Rider's actor David Hasselhoff in a liquor store in Los Angeles when he was around 12. On Mezmerize, "Cigaro" makes explicit references to phallic imagery and bureaucracy while "Violent Pornography" harshly views television and degradation of women. System of a Down's discontent towards the controversial Iraq War arises in "B.Y.O.B.", which includes a double entendre reference to both beer and bombs, containing the forthright lyric "Why don't presidents fight the war? Why do they always send the poor?"  "Old School Hollywood" describes a celebrity baseball game. On their album "Hypnotize", "Tentative" describes war, "Hypnotize" refers to the Tiananmen Square events and "Lonely Day" describes angst. The album title Steal This Album! is a play on the book Steal This Book by left-wing political activist Abbie Hoffman. System of a Down's firm commitment for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide emerges in two songs: "P.L.U.C.K." and "Holy Mountains", which rank among the band's most political songs.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine of AllMusic stated "Like many late-'90s metal bands System of a Down struck a balance between '80s underground thrash metal and metallic early-'90s alternative rockers like Jane's Addiction". System of a Down's music has variously been termed heavy metal, alternative metal, nu metal, hard rock, progressive metal, thrash metal, art rock and avant-garde metal. Malakian has stated that "We don't belong to any one scene" and that "I don't like the nu-metal drop-A 7-string guitar sound; it is not my thing, at least not yet." In interview with Mike Lancaster, he also said, "People always seem to feel the need to put us into a category, but we just don't fit into any category." According to Tankian, "As far as arrangement and everything, [our music] is pretty much pop. To me, System of a Down isn't a progressive band. [...] But it's not a typical pop project, obviously. We definitely pay attention to the music to make sure that it's not something someone's heard before."
The band has used a wide range of instruments, such as electric mandolins, baritone electric guitars, acoustic guitars, ouds, sitars and twelve string guitars. According to Malakian, he would often write songs in E♭ tuning, which would later be changed to drop C tuning in order to be performed by the band. Malakian states that "For me, the drop-C tuning is right down the center. It has enough of the clarity and the crisp sound—most of our riffy stuff is done on the top two strings, anyway—but it's also thicker and ballsier."
Influences and comparison to other artists
System of a Down's influences include Middle Eastern music, Ozzy Osbourne, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Def Leppard, Scorpions, Morbid Angel, Death, Obituary, Eazy-E, N.W.A, Run-DMC, Umm Kulthum, Abdel Halim Hafez, the Bee Gees, Grateful Dead, The Beatles, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Dead Kennedys, Metallica, Miles Davis, Alice In Chains, Bad Brains, Slayer and Kiss. One reviewer claimed that their music encompasses different sounds, from sounding like "Fugazi playing Rush" to sometimes "tread[ing] close to Frank Zappa territory." Malakian has stated that "I'm a fan of music. I'm not necessarily a fan of any one band." Dolmayan stated "I don't think we sound like anybody else. I consider us System of a Down." Odadjian stated "You can compare us to whoever you want. I don't care. Comparisons and labels have no effect on this band. Fact is fact: We are who we are and they are who they are."
Awards and nominations
System of a Down has been nominated for four Grammy Awards, winning one in 2006 for Best Hard Rock Performance for the song "B.Y.O.B." The band has also been nominated for several Kerrang! and MTV awards.
- Serj Tankian – lead vocals, keyboards, rhythm guitar (1994–present)
- Daron Malakian – lead/rhythm guitar, co-lead vocals (1994–present)
- Shavo Odadjian – bass, backing vocals (1994–present)
- John Dolmayan – drums, percussion (1997–present)
- Andy Khachaturian – drums (1994–1997)
- Arto Tunçboyacıyan – percussion, composition (on Toxicity: "Science", "ATWA" and "Arto". Steal This Album!: "Bubbles". Some live concerts in 2005, 2013)
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