THIS MONTH IN METAL No. 13: System of a Down’s “Mezmerize”

The Legacy

You didn’t think I was going to stop after one year, did you?  Let’s ring in volume II of This Month in Metal with something a little more… hypnotizing?  No wait, let’s not jump too far ahead in the year, but that joke will come in handy later.  The word I believe I’m looking for is mesmerizing, and if I spell it cooler, we get this month’s featured metal anniversary.  That’s right, System of a Down’s Mezmerize turns 15 this May.  I was hesitant on this one, but both in regard to listening and illustrating, I’m glad I revisited it.  I hadn’t listened to this album in around 10 years, but for this month I picked it back up, and to my surprise I for once agree with my middle school self on something.  But who gives a shit about nostalgia?  Let’s get mezmerized.

“Mezmerize” cover artwork by Vartan Malakian // Photo: Amoeba Music

Ah, 2005.  Nu Metal (which I still struggle to group the band into) was in its decline and Emo-Screamo (or whatever it was called) was on the rise.  It was pretty bad; I was not growing up in the golden age of metal.  There were some risk takers, however, and System of a Down was definitely one of them.  The iPod generation was taking over with shitty .mp3s, so much so that Mezmerize is only half an album.  The uprise of picking and choosing songs pushed System of a Down into releasing the second half, Hypnotize, later in the year to keep digitally disillusioned audiences engaged.  While Mezmerize/Hypnotize is technically one unit, each album is just as effective on their own.  It nears the end of System of a Down’s career, lacking somewhat in vocalist Serj Tankian’s involvement in favor of guitarist/co-vocalist Daron Malakian’s style due to creative differences.  Some could say this is a dent, but my opinion remains that it still holds up just as well as their other releases.  As experimental as it was commercially successful, Mezmerize is thus a polarizing feat.

“Mezmerize” back cover artwork by Vartan Malakian // Photo: Movies and Moshpits

Living up to its title, Mezmerize is nonsensical as it is direct.  One minute it will take a political stab at the Bush administration’s war tactics with BYOB, then squealing “gonorrhea gorgonzola” repeatedly on This Cocaine Makes Me Feel Like I’m on This Song.  Who knows, man.  An even better example would be on the poppy, synth-heavy Old School Hollywood in which Malakian details a game of celebrity baseball he played.  A harsh cut to the haunting Lost in Hollywood then leaves you threatened and hopeless.  That’s the very beauty of Mezmerize, though.  When it wants to convey purpose, it says it.  When it wants nonsense, it spews it.  As avant-garde as it is, intention is ever present in System of a Down’s 36-minute surrealist fever dream.  Love it or hate it, there’s nothing like Mezmerize.  This shit holds up.

The Sudden Inability to Distinguish Farce and Being

15th anniversary tribute artwork

The Sudden Inability to Distinguish Farce and Being
System of a Down – “Mezmerize” 15th anniversary // May 2020

I’m starting volume II with a slightly new direction.  While compiling the first year of This Month in Metal into the Visual Insult to Sonic Injury, Vol. I book, I found that I favored more of the works that used less blatant imagery lifted from the albums they were inspired by.  I want these to remain as tributes, but also stand on their own as opposed to coming across as fan art.  By translating core themes into subject matter and sound into illustrative elements, this direction can avoid limiting itself to only those who “get” the references.  Let’s see how that applies here.

I’m not a terribly political artist for the most part, but the current mania of the world and particularly the United States fighting the COVID-19 pandemic ties nicely into the themes of Mezmerize.  In retrospect, it stands as a rather topical album right now.  Oppression, classism and war are juxtaposed with overcompensation, nihilism and mania.  Mezmerize thus culminates into a confusing mess, leaving the listener unsure whether to laugh or cower in fear.  We likewise try to make sense of a current situation that is far bigger than our understanding.  As cloudy facades fade and crumble, those in power frantically stroke their egos till the last drop.  Nevertheless, more heads strive for the clouds in search of their own sense of power, identity and inclusion.  If the situation were fictional, it would probably be hilarious and make for great satire.  But the void nevertheless breaks through the brainwashing facade, reminding us that this is all very real.  In their feverish attempts to avoid the notion that we are all the same mush, the gibberish script of societal structure turns into a disjointed theatre production.  What the hell are we watching?  Who knows.

See more heavy hitters in the MONTHLY METAL GALLERY

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Make sure to remind your stepson not to eat the fish.

–NCM