Toxicity, System of a Down, 2001: A Political and Spiritual Masterpiece 16 Years Before Its Time

This may irk some people, but it’s been boiling in me for 15 years and I’m going to just come out and say it. There has never been a more prolific, barrier-breaking, innovative, and quirky album than System of a Down’s 2001 Toxicity. To most younger MIIS students, the album elucidates memories of head-banging in your middle school friend’s bedroom with the volume cranked and the door shut. The anti-establishment angst was so palpable it could level an entire World War 1-era battlefield. From the first metallic crunch of Prison Song to the melodic high pitched, hair-raising opera-like harmony climax that the album closes on in Aerials, the album stands the test of time more than any other work of modern political critique remotely close to the genre of rock, especially in the age of Trump.

Having been released the week of September 11th, 2001, the album stirred major controversy, to the point that Chop Suey, the album’s magnum opus, was immediately taken off radio stations for the sensitive lyrics “I cry / when angels deserve to die / in my self-righteous suicide.” Comprised by the four-man Armenian-American quartet of Serj Tankian, Daron Malakian, Shavo Odadjian, and John Dolmayan, the band has always sung about injustices in the world committed by various agents of imperialism and oppression, often referring to the Armenian Genocide still denied by the Turkish government to this day. While in the 2000’s it was regarded as an indulgently liberal painting of the horrors of the world in a time of Neo-Cons and Hawks, the imagism it conjures is all too real today.

To bring this to light, many of the songs that once depicted a fictitious post-apocalyptic war-film are now simple realities. Once playing into the quirky jokiness of System’s style, now unapologetically describing the horrors that are going on within our own country and our own administration in 2017. Prison Song starts the album off as a no-holds-barred rip through the nu-metal sound that Toxicity claimed virtually all on its own. The song smashes through fast paced guitar riffs that shake the floor before quickly flipping to fast-paced cymbal high-hat while Serj raps breakneck, no-breathe verses like:

“Minor drug offenders fill your prisons
You don’t even flinch
All our taxes paying for your wars
Against the new non-rich”

Then as the song builds up to the chorus every time, Serj seemingly peeks his head over a couch in the background with kind reminders of the dark, subjective realities of 20th century America, such as:

“The percentage of Americans in the prison system
Prison system, has doubled since 1985″


“Drug money is used to rig elections
And train brutal corporate sponsored
Dictators around the world!”

That last one gets me every time. Don’t forget, there is a quirky allusion to comedy and satire with how these men work.

And this is what the album–and the band–does so very well. Not only do they fearlessly call out hypocrisies at the rate that Donald Trump spews unfounded claims in a press conference, but they spin out these songs with the structure of a 40 minute classical piece, and condense it into 4 minutes. The timing is always changing, and it is always catchy, from whomping, stomping nu-metal riffs, to pantomime, eastern European, Armenian-sounding jaunts. Deer Dance, one of the secret gems of the album, starts off like any system romp, cooling down into a sliding bass tune, and this is where the Trump-era images start to become painfully real:

“Circumventing circuses,
Lamenting in protest,
To visible police,
Presence sponsored fear

Battalions of riot police,
With rubber bullet kisses,
Baton courtesies,
Service with a smile

Beyond the Staples Center you can see America,
With its tired, poor, avenging disgrace,
Peaceful, loving youth against the brutality,
Of plastic existence.”

Then it veers off into a walloping, thudding chorus:

“Pushing little children,
With their fully automatics,
They like to push the weak around”

If this doesn’t whirl your head around to the recent images of ICE officers performing mass arrests of illegal immigrants and placing them in detention centers, than you haven’t been paying attention. An album from 16 years ago that seemed to relish in depicting a fictitious breakdown of our society has instead sung about some harsh new realities.

Chop Suey requires no explanation. It is the schizophrenic anthem of an age of discontent youth surrounded by the dominance of corporate America. If you don’t know this song, youtube it and you’ll remember probably one of your high school friends or your own teenage children riffing its quantum-speed staccato verse in an obnoxious, hilarious way. The final chorus is one of the most climactic points in modern music with biblical references abound.


Forest begins with haunting rolling drums that break into another dance-frenzy of hunking riffs. The chorus is notably harmonious, but also deep in meaning:

“You made the weapons for us all, just look at us now!

Why can’t you see that you are my child?

Why don’t you know that you are my mind?

Tell everyone in the world that I’m you

Take this promise to the end of you”

This alludes to the utilization of neocolonial entities by major powers to do their dirty work. To Serj, our children are the foreign leaders western (and eastern) powers have used (directly and indirectly) to commit various atrocities across the globe.

ATWA is no exception to the back-and-forth of melodic, subdued verses interrupted by powerful, crashing choruses that lead into epic, leaping guitar solos and is one of the top tracks. Science directly confronts the negative impacts of technology on mother-nature: “Science has failed our world / Science has failed the mother earth / Spirit moves through all things…”

Toxicity, the second of the three smash hits of its namesake, starts of quietly like many others. Serj lulls you to sleep through the quiet destruction of society:
“Conversion software version 7.0 looking at life through the eyes of a tire hub

Eating seeds as a past time activity, the toxicity of our city, of our city.”

Before yet another earth-shattering call to a harsh reality:

“You, how do you own the world?

How do you own disorder, disorder?

Now somewhere between the sacred silence and sleep, disorder”

After a head-banging euphoria reserved only for the most iconic rock songs, the song stomps to the end with an unholy statement of Beethoven-like proportions and rhythm:

“When I became the sun, I shone life into the man’s hearts!”

The final track Aerials carries the weight of a 200-ton sinking ship. It creeps into your psyche with a haunting bass line that seems ever so slow but ever so complexly melodic and breathless. Sure enough, in about the only semblance to anything predictable by SOAD, the peace and quiet is soon ripped apart by a chorus of sky high vision:

“We are the ones who wanna choose, always wanna play but you never wanna lose

Aerials in the sky, when you lose small mind you free you life.

Aerials, so up high, when you free your eyes, eternal prize”

The album is a culmination of all anti-establishment resentment that built up throughout the 90’s and that overflowed into the 2000’s. For its time, it painted powerful images and emotions of our own subjugation to an all-powerful corporate machine, but it did this with imagism that was more than anything indulgent and divergent to the reality of the Bush-era. It asserted powerful meaning hopelessly torn between vicious, house-shaking riffs and Armenian-inspired periods of serenity. Every song on the album has a different structure and is soaked in progressive, anti-war emotion that pokes fun at the Bush administration and the overarching imperialistic tendencies of neoliberalism, but it does so in such a creative, never-before-done way that it makes you almost think that they’re joking. Perhaps the darkest aspect of this album, that which proves that they are, indeed, not joking, is that these notions that were once jests of the corporate America of the Bush era are now all-too-serious paintings of Trump’s America.


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