|February 23, 2002
BY JIM DEROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC
In terms of musical innovations and creative songwriting, Incubus and
System of a Down are the two bands that have risen farthest above the
formulaic nu-metal flock.
But where the former lays back with lyrics that are firmly in the
old-fashioned hippie mold, the latter is eloquently agitating for radical
change (its favorite enemy: the forces of global corporatization). To put it
in '60s terms, think of the difference between the Grateful Dead and the
MC5. Then increase the tempos and decrease the attention span.
"We are living in a world of guided missiles and misguided men," System
vocalist Serj Tankian intoned at one point doing a sold-out show Thursday
night at the Aragon, offering a typical example of his band's
The Los Angeles quartet is the most aggressively political rock band
since Rage Against the Machine to find mainstream success (its second album,
"Toxicity," debuted at No. 1 shortly before Sept. 11). But the group's
sociopolitical critiques are, if anything, much more sophisticated, informed
and subtly nuanced.
Unlike Zach de la Rocha (or Bono, to cite another example from outside
the rap-rock genre), Tankian seems to disdain preaching, even if he does
dress like a priest. The only thing that he actively advocates is that his
audience start thinking for itself.
It was hard to say whether that message was connecting with the masses at
the Aragon. Before the band took the stage, the men in the crowd typically
passed the time by urging the women to show their breasts, and the roiling
mosh pits that broke out once the show started were as pointlessly brutal as
any in recent years.
But at least System was trying to elevate the level of discourse with
songs such as "Deer Dance," an impressionistic portrait of street actions in
L.A. during the 2000 Democratic National Convention. The tune builds to the
memorable line, "We can't afford to be neutral on a moving train." And, like
most of the group's material, it was as interesting musically as it was
Leaping quickly and nimbly from meter-defying, Frank Zappa-style art-rock
to Middle Eastern drones, and from rampaging heavy-metal riffs to slow and
moody quotes from Pink Floyd's "The Wall," guitarist Daron Malakian, bassist
Shavo Odadjian and drummer John Dolmayan (all second-generation Armenian
Americans who met in a community school in L.A.) showed more imagination and
technique in one ever-changing four-minute jam than most of their peers
display in an entire set.
Still at the beginning of what will hopefully be a long journey, System
proved that it could be the band that gets Generation Y to realize that rock
is more than mere high-energy entertainment. Lord knows, somebody needs to
do the job.
Opening for the group: the long-running Maryland quartet Clutch, who
showed considerable improvement from the last time I saw them in the same
role at the same venue. This time out, Clutch thankfully offered some solid
songwriting to go along with its trademark sound, a mix of minimalist
metallic crunch and free-flowing funk.