System of a Down, the esteemed alternative hard rock band, has returned after a long-awaited, fifteen-year hiatus from releasing original music. The Los Angeles based group, comprised entirely of ethnically Armenian musicians, released a double A-side single this week, “Protect the Land” and “Genocidal Humanoidz.”
The band’s beginnings trace back to Los Angeles in the early 90s, where Serj Tankian first met guitarist Daron Malakian. Bonding over their shared culture and passion for music, the Armenian duo decided to start a band, recruiting Shavo Odadjian on bass and John Dolmayan on the drums. Tankian, a descendant of survivors of the Armenian Genocide, was also an ardent political activist, especially on issues surrounding Armenia. It was the convergence of these passions, seasoned with an array of musical influences, that birthed System of a Down.
Bursting onto the hard-rock scene in 1998 with their eponymous debut, SOAD’s music was, from its earliest epoch, brimming with both ferocity and creative melodies. SOAD crafted a unique sound born of its members’ influences, with heavy, overdriven riffs that hark back to Slayer and Metallica, and distinct scales echoing Armenian folk. The drums, similarly, eschew typical orthodoxies of metal and swing – a characteristic of jazz, which the band’s drummer, John Dolmayan, has cited as an early influence.
Throughout their career, despite being a Los Angeles band, SOAD has never demurred from their roots, instead, they proudly intertwined their image as a band with their ethnic Armenian heritage. In the music video for their 2001 hit, “Toxicity,” they featured a scene of all four band members eating sunflower seeds – a stereotypical Armenian past time according to the lyrics — with their discarded shells forming an effigy of Mount Ararat, a national symbol for the Armenian people. The video for their 2005 single, “B.Y.O.B.” (“Bring Your Own Bombs”), featured a giant Armenian flag waving in the background.
In addition to using their platform to promote Armenian culture, System of a Down has also never shied away from using its art as a vessel for addressing political and moral issues. In “Holy Mountains,” off their 2005 album, Hypnotize, they wrote a rock song about the Armenian Genocide – exposing reams of otherwise unaware music fans to what, especially in the early 2000s, remained largely a concealed facet of history. In “B.Y.O.B.,” SOAD penned a contemporary antiwar anthem as an upbeat hard rock song – much like Creedence Clearwater’s “Fortunate Son” or Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.”
Citing creative and artistic differences, the band announced an indefinite hiatus from making music in 2006, after releasing a pair of albums in 2005, Mesmerize and Hypnotize. More recently, political differences had flared and wedged themselves between members. I spoke with the band’s songwriter and vocalist, Serj Tankian, about music as a form of political commentary, the current state of System of a Down, and its future.
Tankian shared his insight on how music — especially good music that can withstand the test of time and become ingrained in our cultural fabric – can be wielded to motivate cultural and political change, explaining, “Music, especially with strong intentional messaging, can be a potent form of soft power. Our intuitive senses first process it and if we’re moved, it then in turn affects our reasoning which itself can shape the world that we live in or at least our worldview.”
Expounding on the contention within the band surrounding the American elections and President Donald Trump, Tankian stated, “The band may not agree on American politics, but we are all on the same page with Armenia and Artsakh. That does not mean we no longer have artistic or political differences.”
During his time away from SOAD, Tankian has remained dedicated to his advocacy, embarking on numerous film and solo music endeavors. But nothing generated the excitement that came from SOAD reuniting, with the release of new music leading to a frenzy from fans. I asked Tankian for his thoughts on System of a Down as cultural phenomenon and as something greater than the sum of its parts, he explained, “SOAD is a unique phenomenon that has resonated resolutely with people around the world in a beautiful and powerful fashion that cannot be replicated. That said it doesn’t mean we can’t as artists pursue all our individual pursuits as not everything can be accomplished within one group.”
When asked about his plans to continue making music with System of a Down, he emphasized that currently creating music for solely artistic and creative ends is not the band’s focus. Tankian added that Armenia is still in the midst of an unnerving war with Azerbaijan and Turkey that has, to date, displaced more than sixty percent (over 90,000 civilians) of Nagorno Karabakh’s indigenous Armenian population. “Right now, we’re focused on what’s happening in Artsakh; we didn’t record these songs for us as artists, nor each other as friends. We did this for our people, our nation, suffering a horrendous humanitarian catastrophe due to Azerbaijan and Turkey committing war crimes against Artsakh and Armenia. So, no, we have not discussed the future of SOAD. It’s not what’s pertinent to us right now.”
It was against this ominous backdrop that Serj, Daron, Shavo and John, under the banner of System of a Down, began recording sessions for their new singles, “Protect the Land” and “Genocidal Humanoidz.”
The first of the double A-side singles, “Protect the Land,” was written by the band’s guitarist, Daron Malakian, and features Tankian on backing harmonies where he supplies his far-reaching vocal range in spates. The song pays homage to Armenian soldiers past and present, with Tankian and Malakian harmonizing to form a blend of vocals with immense musical deftness. In his lyrics, Malakian repeatedly queries the listener, asking, “If they will try to push you far away, would you stay and take a stand? Would you stay with gun in hand?” Malakian is quick to draw a distinction between himself and the men and women on the front lines whose bravery he extolls in the third person, “They protect the land.”
“Genocidal Humanoidz” exudes the very essence of System of a Down; it is the band at their most primal. At just two-and-a-half minutes long, it never lingers. The song is terse and precise, maximizing its effect. It wastes no time, opening with Malakian’s distorted, crunchy guitar riff over John Dolmayan’s thumping drumbeat. Tankian’s vocals shimmy into the mix as he moves in and out of his hypnotic staccato cadence and unleashes his mammoth vocals in the chorus. Tankian goes on to express his disdain for NATO and the U.N., saying “prostitutes who prosecute have failed us from the start.”
While diverging artistic visions and political squabbles splintered System of a Down, it was their initial source of camaraderie: a deep passion and ardor for their Armenian culture that brought them back together.
Underscoring their decision to overlook and set aside trivial disagreements in pursuit of a common goal, the band issued an official statement on their website, writing that both songs “speak of a dire and serious war being perpetrated upon our cultural homelands of Artsakh and Armenia.” Proceeds from the double A-side single as well as the accompanying merchandise, all available on System of a Down’s website, will be donated to the Armenian Fund.