On Tuesday, four Armenian Americans organized a rally outside of the Chicago office of Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert to convince him to pass legislation that officially recognizes the Armenian genocide in Turkey between 1915 and 1923 (www.systemofadownonline.com).
Two days later, these same men played a 30-song set at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena.
These political activists/rock stars – vocalist Serj Tankian, guitarist Daron Malakian, bassist Shavo Odadjian and drummer John Dolmayan – formed the hard rock band System of a Down in 1993 for the music. Their music is innovative alternative rock, that features unorthodox vocal melodies and harmonies combined with a metal/hard rock sound. Through this original combination of styles, the group’s shared Armenian heritage and their political views inevitably shine through.
System of a Down’s lyrics are overtly political. As they ponder in their recent hit, “B.Y.O.B.,” which opened Thursday night’s set, “Why don’t presidents fight the war? / Why do they always send the poor?” However, in their 90-minute set, not once did the band preach rhetoric to the crowd, or assume the political beliefs of anyone in the arena. None of their stage banter involved politics. Their political ideas are embedded in the lyrics, and they kept it that way.
System also integrates humor in their songs. One highlight of Thursday’s show was the intro to “Cigaro” from the latest album, Mesmerize. The song beings with Tankian singing slowly and melodically, “My cock is much bigger than yours / My cock can walk right through the door / With a feeling so pure.”
The stage was tastefully minimalist in character, with three rugs in the front, underneath Tankian, Malakian and Odadjian, giving them plenty of room to dance. Tankian showed off some traditional Armenian moves in between verses. He and Malakian shared the spotlight, alternating singing and playing guitar and keyboard. They kept the stagehands busy by playing several songs throughout their set that required keyboards and different guitars for both of them, showing their dedication to try new ways of expressing themselves musically.
Although Odadjian was never in the spotlight, he interacted the most with the audience. He related to different sections of the very large crowd, mainly the seated section near his part of the stage, with gestures, making the concert more personal for the fans. He danced around the stage and even climbed on the speakers and drum set. After his bass solo in one song, he collapsed on the stage and continued playing on the ground.
Moshing audience members periodically formed circle pits in the “pit area” on the arena’s main floor, and everyone spawned the devil horns with their fingers throughout the show.
In contrast to opening band The Mars Volta’s four-song, hour-long set, System zoomed through 30 songs during their 90-minute set, covering material from all four albums. They stopped only once to check on the pit. They also played the title track of their forthcoming album, Hypnotize, which will be released on Nov. 22. The prominent drums on this song stand out, and the melody has a Middle Eastern influence. It is not as heavy as many of their songs, but the fans moshed along with it anyway.
Every song was tight, and each band member exhibited excellent musicianship. They played the complicated rhythm changes seemingly effortlessly and stayed together while doing so. System’s live show is their ultimate form of expression, and their performance was solid.