In hindsight, System of a Down‘s 2001 sophomore release Toxicity is perhaps the weirdest, most experimental and outspokenly political album to come from the early ’00s alt/nu-metal scene, its themes and thoughts only becoming more accurate as times goes on. Thus, its influence on both the trajectory of modern metal and the political education of an entire generation of music fans can’t possibly be overstated.
My favourite albums by System of A Down have always been Hypnotize and Mezmerize, because they introduced me to this frenetic band and, really, modern metal. Perhaps because I love these last SOAD albums so much, I have given their previous releases comparably minimal attention. Toxicity is sadly, and perhaps criminally, no exception. I genuinely cannot remember the last time I gave Toxicity a full listen, but if I had to guess, I’d imagine 2009 or 2010. In many ways, the listens I’ve given Toxicity to write this piece feel as fresh as the first time I heard the record.
And the first thing that stood out to me upon my return to this album is precisely how much rage Toxicity overflows with. It’s genuinely palpable. Toxicity shows SOAD at a time when polish was much less a priority than unadulterated, unpretentious expressions of political commentary and personal pain. “Prison Song” captures so much of what nu-metal brought to the mainstream in the early aughts, but with so much more death metal and thrash influences than I remember. To me, a Sepultura influence is particularly, but not unpleasantly, present. Blast beats and growls fill much of the tracks that precede the monumental, majestic, and melodic “Chop Suey!”.
I could dedicate more space in this piece than I can probably justify to “Chop Suey!”; however, it suffices to say that I think it is one of the most essential metal songs written, at least for my own foray into the genre. In many ways, the song is a microcosm of many forms of metal, from thrash and progressive metal to nu-metal (and even symphonic metal, arguably). Yet, the song is so fully focused and expressive that it never feels as multi-faceted as it is. This is one of the early metal songs I heard that both terrified and intrigued me, probably before I turned 10 years old. I was afraid of what I was hearing and simultaneously wanted to hear more. That is not to even mention some of the other genuinely titanic songs that Toxicity features, like the title track and “Aerials”. While the quality of these songs is undeniable, their melodies, dynamics, and experimental elements all establish the framework SOAD fleshes out on the records that come after Toxicity.
Part of what intrigues me about the A Scene In Retrospect feature is that the albums we look at here have context in the way that new albums simply cannot provide. Yet, with SOAD’s (likely) complete discography before us, it’s fascinating to see the way that Toxicity captures System of A Down at a moment where they find their footing as politically progressive and instrumentally aggressive nu-metal artists, yet foreshadow their next, more melodic and epic steps.
It was a post-9/11 world. I was 12. I didn’t know shit about shit. But I did know the moment I heard Toxicity all the way through that my life wouldn’t be the same from then on.
Maybe that’s a bit dramatic – I didn’t have the foresight or frame of reference to make such a claim at that age, so this is all said with hindsight. What I did know is that I hadn’t heard anything quite like it at the time.
System Of A Down kind of came out of nowhere for me – I vaguely remember hearing “Sugar” (from their self-titled debut) and “Chop Suey!” on the radio a lot suddenly. I was enthralled with their energy. Who else was around then? Korn? Limp Bizkit? Rage Against the Machine? Slipknot? No slouches for sure (again, at the time, and with the understanding that radio was still my only real outlet for musical discovery), yet SOAD were comparatively unhinged, a veritable bull in a china shop. They were, in short, some of the heaviest music I’d ever heard by that age. I can’t recall when, but I bought the CD pretty soon after hearing them and wore that fucker out.
Toxicity’s also the first time I remember hearing political lyrics and actually paying attention. Let’s face it – the anti-war messages of songs like Metallica’s “One” or the leftist rhetoric dripping from Rage Against the Machine’s vitriolic discography wasn’t exactly hitting home at 12. But “Prison Song”?
‘Following the rights movements, you clamped down with your iron fists
Drugs became conveniently available for all the kids’
‘I buy my crack, my smack, my bitch
Right here in Hollywood
(Nearly two million Americans are incarcerated
In the prison system, prison system of the US)’
‘Minor drug offenders fill your prisons, you don’t even flinch
All our taxes paying for your wars against the new non-rich’
‘All research and successful drug policy shows that treatment should be increased
And law enforcement decreased while abolishing mandatory minimum sentences
Utilizing drugs to pay for secret wars around the world
Drugs are now your global policy, now you police the globe’
Maybe I didn’t fully comprehend at the time, but it spurred something in me. What was he talking about? What’s a mandatory minimum sentence? Are two million people really incarcerated here? And this wasn’t the only song that had political overtones (or undertones for that matter – SOAD are subtle when they wanna be). They sang about the prison-industrial complex, class war, drugs, police brutality, and the Armenian Genocide, something obviously close to the foursome’s hearts as they hail from Armenia (by way of LA) and had ancestors endure that atrocity. I hadn’t learned about that genocide in school – ever, but especially by age 12 – you’re telling me there was this whole other genocide besides the Holocaust where well over a million people were estimated to have died? This is the part where the mysterious narrator voice pops up and says ‘oh, my sweet summer child’.
Little did I know that these are societal and political problems that I would grow familiar with as I got older, some becoming more and more relevant in our post-9/11 world. I’ve seen enough “Deer Dance” in the last couple years alone as peaceful protestors the world over are violated by police with violence, trumped-up charges, and bogus arrests – sometimes worse. I’d go on to college to eventually land on my feet as a criminal justice major, researching police militarization, mass incarceration, three-strike laws, the war on drugs, and so, so, so much more that has sown what I consider an irreversible, irreparable divide between the state and the citizens it’s alleged to protect.
And let me just say real quick that while I praise this band up and down all day, up to and including John Dolmayan’s drumming, I do not at all cosign any of the absolute ignorance he’s been saying over the last couple years. He has every right to believe and say what he wants – I, too, reserve the right to call him a clown for believing and saying what he does. He undermines much of SOAD’s music’s messages and that’s a shame. Do better, John.
To back up a bit, though, there’s so much of Toxicity that resonated with me when I was young, at least sonically – the melodies, the energy, the nonsensical lyrics. You have to remember this was peak ‘lol random XD’ humor time, when Newgrounds and Albino Blacksheep were blazing new trails of animation and internet content for us millennials to consume, share, and repeat ad nauseum, so the wild lyrics of “Jet Pilot” or “Bounce” were right up our alleys when taken at face value (it’s theorized that “Jet Pilot” is about bombings in Armenia, and “Bounce” is definitely, indisputably, 100% about doing tricks with a pogo stick 😉 ).
It’s always been nearly impossible to categorize System Of A Down and that’s by design. Alternative metal? Nu-metal? Hard rock? Something else? It mattered because it didn’t – SOAD was the first of their kind, and while I’m sure you could trace a healthy lineage of stylistic descendants whether they voice it or not (personally, Melted Bodies are one of the first that come to mind), no one has ever sounded quite like them in the 20-plus years they’ve been around.
One thing that has stayed lovingly consistent is Serj Tankian’s vocals. He’s one of my favorite singers ever thanks to his impressive range and the Pattonesque ways he plays with inflection and delivery. Want haunting hooks you can sing along? “Aerials” has got you. Rap god speed without sacrificing clarity? “Chop Suey!” is on the menu. Playful tonality with breakneck turns into powerful projection? That’s many songs, but I’d point to “Deer Dance” first and foremost. Hell, up until Mezmerize, I was all about Daron Malakian’s vocals as well, as they were a great complement to Serj’s.
If there’s anything sad about Toxicity, it’s that a lot of the themes its songs are based in are still relevant today. It’s also hard to ignore that its release marks a huge turning point for the entire world, when economic collapse threatened us on a regular basis, ceaseless (not falling for it, Biden) war was the norm, and everything else started to take more of a malignant shape over time. So, I guess in a roundabout way, I was right – my life wouldn’t be the same after Toxicity.
I realize the way I phrased that makes it sound like the release of Toxicity itself was the catalyst for gradual world collapse and I think that’s funny, like we couldn’t handle how good the album was and just started messing everything up.
Music’s got me though, when no one else does. Music’s had my back for life. If there’s one album I had to point to that really opened me up for future discoveries and nurturing that budding passion within – one that led me to this very site, writing and editing, sharing and discovering – Toxicity is without a doubt on that shortlist. To this day, System Of A Down (with The Mars Volta – another pinnacle music discovery of my teens) are the biggest concert I’ve been to and I still remember that night 17 years ago. I remember the dudes in front of us passing around a gallon-size Ziploc bag of weed to pack bowls with. I remember the fierce lighting, and the way the screen above the band flashed the words ‘FUCK YOU, PIG’ when playing “Mr. Jack” from Steal This Album! and everyone screaming along. I remember, and I don’t remember much these days after years of dealing with the generational trauma, depression, and anxiety that me and a lot of my peers were stricken with from living on this hellplanet.
Because it’s a post-9/11 world. Now I’m 32. I still don’t know shit about shit. But I’m trying, and I’m surviving, and I’m doing my best. I can’t imagine my life without Toxicity, so I won’t – I’ll just enjoy it and the fact that I still remember pretty much every word on this album.
System Of A Down is a band I grew up with and have had a love for since I first started listening to rock music. As a kid and as a young teen, I loved them for their high energy and heavy, insanely catchy instrumentals. I loved their sometimes wacky lyricism and got a kick out of songs like “Bounce” way before I should have.
Now that I’ve gotten older, I love this band for a lot more than just the nostalgia of my youth. System Of A Down seriously kick ass, and Toxicity was the band at peak form. In my opinion, all 15 tracks on this album hold up as much as they did when this album came out a whopping 20 years ago now. It’s admittedly been a while since I listened to it in full, and I feel as if I like it even more now. It’s a fun and catchy nu-metal album filled with great melodies and harmonies that explores a plethora of different sounds.
I really miss this sound, and everytime I hear stirring rumors that System Of A Down is considering a reunion, I cross my fingers in hope. There really isn’t any other band quite like them, and they were writing songs about real shit that is still just as relevant and impactful today as it was 20 years ago. “Prison Song” fiercely targets the American prison system and it’s shameful treatment of people: ‘All research and successful drug policy shows that treatment should be increased and law enforcement decreased.’ This line rings true more than ever with the turmoil that has overtaken the United States for the last couple of years.
Quite possibly the most controversial song to me still is “Science”, and it provides quandaries you could have a very long debate about. It suggests that faith is the strongest part of human existence, something that science doesn’t account for. Over the course of Toxicity, System Of A Down hit more subject matter than most bands ever cover. It’s no wonder so much of my generation grew up to be so radical, with groups like SOAD and Rage Against The Machine regularly accessible.
Toxicity is an album that has been a part of my life since I was 7 years old, and one that I have heard songs from at regular intervals for the last twenty years. And it hasn’t worn its welcome at all in that span of time. As I said, I think I like it even more than I used to, listening back to it in full. It’s a wild good time, and it says a lot of relevant things even twenty years removed from its release. It definitely influenced my thoughts about a lot of aspects of our society through the years.
‘When you lose small mind you free your life’