Album Anniversaries: System of a Down’s Toxicity

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Editor’s note: For Album Anniversaries, The Daily Texan revisits iconic albums on the anniversary of their release date.

Although it took System of a Down three years and four demo tapes to sign to a label, the nu metal outfit found a decent starting point with their 1998 self-titled debut LP. Initially, the album was overlooked by the mainstream rock audience and struggled on the charts. However, after growing slowly with fans, SOAD built up a decent following for their sophomore album release on Sept. 4, 2001.

The group had planned on a surprise release for Toxicity at a free show. The concert was supposed to be held in a parking lot for approximately 3,000 attendees, but after over double the lot’s maximum capacity showed up for the performance, police officers canceled the show with no announcement. After waiting for an hour to see the band perform, the audience rushed the stage, destroying $30,000 of the band’s equipment during the riot.

Whereas SOAD served as a stepping stone for modern heavy metal, Toxicity was met with instant popularity — even though it was released a week before the events of 9/11, it still sold 2.7 million copies in a little over a year. But instead of giving in to mainstream hard rock influences, SOAD accomplished success by sticking to their signature nu metal sound, highlighted with blaring and sharp guitar riffs and rambling lyrics.

The album’s lead single, “Chop Suey!”, embodies everything SOAD stands for artistically. The song forces itself into each listener’s consciousness, pulling them in with a catchy melody to reveal layers of what are now alt metal signatures, including the relaxed use of an acoustic guitar and dominant snare drums.

Building off of “Chop Suey!”, SOAD travels further down the rabbit hole, with lead singer Serj Tankian’s lyrics becoming poignantly introspective. The album’s namesake “Toxicity” features one of the most heated performances of the album, alternating through a few triple-meter time signatures which allows Tankian to change the mood of the song with ease. With abstractions like “Eating seeds as a pastime activity” and “Flashlight reveries caught in the headlights of a truck,” it’s difficult to understand each song’s meaning, but his shouting gang vocals capitalize on key moments.

At the same time, Tankian isn’t afraid to throw something at the wall and see if it sticks. “Bounce” features blatant references to orgies, and “ATWA” obsesses over harmony through nature, building off of “Air, Trees, Water, Animals” — a term coined by Charles Manson.

The band’s shtick of wacky and seemingly spontaneous syncopations comes through in every possible moment, to the joy of fans and critics alike. John Dolmayan generally sticks to precise drumming, making the moments when he breaks out all the more noticeable. “Arto” features no guitar whatsoever, instead calling on the band members’ Armenian-American roots with traditional Armenian instruments and each band member’s chanting. Even in the absence of overdrive, “Arto” still manages to fit within SOAD’s
metal experimentation. 

For a genre that takes itself so seriously, Toxicity is a much needed breather. Fans of the group still laud the album’s consistency and experimentation today, and it stands as a milestone for modern metal. It’s put together well and
deserves to stand as one of nu metal’s signature releases.

Rating: 10 bowls of chop suey/10