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Artist: System of a Down
Label: Sony
Length: 14 tracks

Trying to classify rock music into particular genres these days is almost impossible. However, some adjectives to give an impression of System of a Down (SOAD) for those in the dark ... it's very heavy, loud, aggressive alternative metal music. It's also one of the most acclaimed nu-metal albums of the millennium so far, incorporating old-school thrash metal with punk, jazz(!) and even dashes of Middle Eastern folk music.

So why, you may ask, bother reviewing it in a Christian e-Zine? Here's why. My trawl of the Internet for a revelatory interview has yielded little definitive evidence of this, but in my mind, SOAD clearly draw their poetry from a place influenced by a powerful and personal Christian heritage.

In the liner notes the lead singer thanks first of all, "The Great Spirit for vision, and the Creator for source." As is clear from the record, it is not solely a Christian vision, but the stunning depth of spiritual and philosophical reflection amidst the mayhem on this album should give pause to those who think that modern rock music has nothing of substance to say these days.

The four members of SOAD (vocalist Serj Tankian, guitarist Daron Malakian, bassist Shavo Odajian and drummer John Dolmayan) identify themselves as Armenian-Americans, meaning they are descendants of the Christian nation of Armenia that suffered the first genocide of the 20th Century at the hands of Muslim Turkey from 1880 until 1915. They obviously feel this deep in their collective psyche and it fuels their rage against all injustice, as different social issues come under their intense lyrical scrutiny.

Through the brutal grooves and growls of the opening track, "Prison Song," SOAD spew out a political rant against the fact that "nearly 2 million Americans are incarcerated in the prison system of the US" and those in power who conspire to put them there. "Minor drug offenders fill your prisons, you don't even flinch, all our taxes paying for your wars against the new non-rich."

In a pointed comment on the track "Science," Tankian sings "Science fails to recognize that the single most potent element of human existence is faith." He doesn't elaborate, except to say "Spirit moves through all things," but I imagine author Paul Davies (God and the New Physics) would agree with such a sentiment. The songs "Toxicity" and "Aerials" also express a yearning for interaction with the eternal and divine in a technology-saturated society in seeming disorder.

Most beguiling however for a Christian reading of SOAD is the song "Chop Suey!" which, besides its quirky title, emotes the pain of a drug-addict contemplating suicide. In that pain, in perhaps the most moving rendition that I have ever heard, they sing the words of Christ, "Father into your hands I commend my spirit. Why have you forsaken me?" again and again. When a heavy metal band in today's pop charts conceptualizes the words of Jesus in this way, we had better sit up and listen. It's no accident.

For this band, the spiritual element of existence is an ever-present reality that is ignored to one's peril. It is perhaps encapsulated best in the closing song on the album:

Life is a waterfall.
We drink from the river
Then we turn around and put up our walls.
Swimming through the void, we hear the word,
We lose ourselves, but we find it all

When you lose small mind, you free your life.
When you free your eyes, eternal prize.
I would venture to say that there is more spiritual food for thought in this one CD than you'll find in most so-called Contemporary Christian Music releases, and maybe ten Parachute Festivals! That said, those unprepared for the aural assault of System of a Down might get indigestion. But those with ears to hear, they shall be satisfied.

Brendan Boughen  9/9/2002


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