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100 Albums: "Mezmerize" by System Of A Down

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: System Of A Down
Title: Mezmerize
Released: 2005
Genre: Armenian speed-metal

When you absolutely need some Armenian speed-metal, accept no substitute. System Of A Down blends thrashing guitars with rich vocal harmonies from singer Serj Tankian and singer/guitarist Daron Malakian (who also does a lot of the writing). Add in Middle-Eastern melodic scales and a healthy dose of progressive politicking and you've got something unique, aggressive and at times oddly beautiful. Mezmerize was the first half of a double-album released in two parts--the second half, Hypnotize, came out six months later. Mezmerize is an album that is tightly tied to a specific time and place for me. It came out when I was living in L.A., which is also where the band members live and grew up, so it was littered with references that felt literally close to home. The first time I listened to the song Lost In Hollywood, I was on a bus from Hollywood to Echo Park. The song references the streets Sunset Blvd, Santa Monica Blvd, and Hollywood Blvd, which were all driven on or crossed by the bus I was on while the lyrics informed me that "you should have never gone to Hollywood." It was downright eerie.

This is SoaD doing what they do best and making it seem effortless: alternately crooning and screaming about politics and philosophy over impossibly fast chugging metal riffs. The centerpiece of the album is B.Y.O.B., a pointed indictment of the war in Iraq that is intro'd by a snippet of a song called Soldier Side that would be reprised on the following album. That's really it for politics, though, with much of the rest tipping into metaphysical meanderings. The album's only other single Question! wonders aloud "Where do we go when we die?" and Sad Statue posits that "forgiveness is the ultimate sacrifice." But then you have obtuse songs like Old School Hollywood that talks a lot about baseball and mentions Tony Danza and Frankie Avalon--in reality a reference to a celebrity baseball game that Malakian, Danza, and Avalon had all played in. Malakian also talks about his real-life neighbors Danny and Lisa in Radio/Video without any context or explanation. In a way, it feels like being dropped into someone else's story. It's intimate but distancing at the same time. And, because you can't have a heavy metal album without at least one darkly humorous song, we get the excellently titled This Cocaine Makes Me Feel Like I'm On This Song.

I don't want to say that Mezmerize is SoaD's masterpiece, because it was only intended to be the first part of something larger. The end of the album, while satisfying, is a little abrupt. And at only 36 minutes, it's a very consumable record. It amuses me that the "double" album of Mezmerize/Hypnotize is short enough to fit on a single compact disc. But overall it's one of their more personal and vulnerable efforts, even as it flashes from meditative to teeth-rattling and back at breakneck speed.

Further Listening: The follow-up and conclusion to Mezmerize was also the band's swan song, Hypnotize. It's... okay. I kind of hate Lonely Day, which was the centerpiece single for that one, but the song Hypnotize is pretty excellent. I much prefer their breakout album Toxicity which has the band's most recognizable single Chop Suey!