Two Become One
System of a Down Doubles Up

A short review of a long record this week.

I am a big fan of CD packaging, and the guys in System of a Down have just made me very happy. When the Armenian-via-Los-Angeles quartet originally announced their plan to release two albums this year, they hammered the point home over and over – this is a double album, meant to be heard all at once. That it came out in installments (Mezmerize (sic) in May, and Hypnotize this week) was not their choice, they said, but rather a compromise with American Records.

Who knows how true that is, since two albums means twice the cash for both the label and the band, and putting out two records (or even three) in one year is becoming a more accepted practice. (I’m looking at you, Ryan Adams…) But the band also promised that the packaging for Mezmerize and Hypnotize would reflect that they were intended as two halves of a whole. When Mezmerize came out, I couldn’t make sense of the package – the cover image was upside down, as was the text on the spine, and it opened from the left side, throwing the whole thing into confusion.

But now that Hypnotize is here, it all makes sense. The two Digipaks are designed to connect and form one double-album package, and it works brilliantly. The two covers face outward, the spines line up, and the artwork inside reveals a symmetry one could not have guessed from just the first installment. It’s my favorite package of the year, without a doubt – inventive and illuminating. I know that most people don’t care about the packages their CDs come in, but an old-fashioned albums guy like me appreciates the time and effort that went into designing something like this.

In a way, the music undergoes a similar transformation when listened to as a whole. Mezmerize is without doubt the best heavy record of the year, and System the most daring and varied metal band I’ve encountered in many a moon. But it is really short, and feels unfinished. Meanwhile, Hypnotize feels less like a stand-alone album and more like the second half, the more serious and introspective counter to Mezmerize’s antics. Mezmerize can work on its own, but it sounds incomplete. Hypnotize cannot, but it effectively completes its brother. They are two halves of a whole, just as the band promised.

There’s good news and bad news there. Hypnotize is absolutely married to Mezmerize, but it is also inferior in a number of important ways, and it drags the whole project down. Mezmerize was one home run after another, but Hypnotize brings the batting average down with some frustratingly mediocre passages, particularly in its first half. If you look at them as separate records, Hypnotize feels like the rushed follow-up, the diminished returns from an extended recording schedule, the songs they felt weren’t good enough for Mezmerize. You can love one and like the other, and all is well.

But it’s obvious that the band doesn’t view them as separate pieces, and they do connect well. While “Lost in Hollywood” sounds like the moment right at the end when Mezmerize runs out of gas, it makes an effective bridge in double-album form from disc one’s manic brilliance to disc two’s more traditional metalscapes. Nothing on disc two sports the wondrously kinetic ADD of “Revenga,” or the explosiveness of “Cigaro,” or even the melodic radio-readiness of “B.Y.O.B.” I said in May that if System could keep the boundless energy of disc one going for the whole thing, they’d have one of the best records of the year on their hands, and sadly, they didn’t.

What they did isn’t half bad, though, and if System had not raised their own bar so high with their opening salvo, the conclusion wouldn’t be as disappointing. Hypnotize crashes to life with “Attack,” the most incendiary thing here, which finds singer Serj Tankian taking aim at media propaganda and government lies, as usual. It sounds for all the world like you’ve just cued up side three – the band is in mid-assault, like they’ve just returned from intermission. The following five songs are varying shades of forgettable, although guitarist Daron Malakian, who owns this whole project, is precise as a smart bomb throughout.

Things pick up with “U-Fig,” and the dirge-like “Holy Mountains,” all about the Armenian genocide after World War I. But they really kick into gear with “Vicinity of Obscenity,” the one song here that reflects the flitting genius of Mezmerize. One of the chief problems with Hypnotize is that System seems intent on becoming just another good metal band. Replace Tankian with James Hetfield, and “Holy Mountains” could be a Metallica song, whereas no other metal band on the planet would do something as potentially embarrassing (and fitfully smart) as “Vicinity of Obscenity.” “Banana banana terracotta pie,” indeed.

Another big problem – perhaps the biggest – with Hypnotize is that Daron Malakian needs to shut the hell up. This album all but announces him as the co-lead singer, and there’s a reason he’s the guitarist and Serj Tankian is the vocalist. Malakian’s voice is thin and reminiscent of Geddy Lee’s, in a way. There’s nothing special about it. Tankian, on the other hand, is like Mike Patton mixed with Mel Blanc. He’s unhinged, insane, and fantastic, able to jump from voice to voice, octave to octave. His evil cartoon rantings took Mezmerize up that one notch it needed to go, and they are all but missing from Hypnotize. It’s another example of System forgetting what makes them special.

As a single album, Mezmerize/Hypnotize gets progressively more serious and less snarky as it goes along, and perhaps not coincidentally, the energy level is nearly nonexistent by the time Malakian is lamenting “the most loneliest day” of his life. The whole thing ends with “Soldier Side,” reprising the introduction to disc one, and further tying everything together – but alas, “Soldier Side” worked better as a minute-long intro than as a four-minute song.

All together, this double record is 76 minutes, too, which means it could easily have been released on one CD. The more cynical among you may surmise that the band knew which songs were amazing and which were merely good, arranged them accordingly, released the amazing ones first accompanied by a lot of hype about double records and needing the second half, and then designed a package that makes no sense unless you have both parts, all to ensure sales of their inferior stuff and make more money. I’m not quite that cynical, and enough of Hypnotize is good enough to make me think otherwise, but it’s worth discussing.

System of a Down is a fiercely political band, railing against rampant capitalism and injustice, and greed is not a quality I would readily ascribe to them. This two-album project slots together as seamlessly as its packaging does, and I am willing to bet that the band sees Mezmerize/Hypnotize as one large work. Whether they see it as falling short of their ambitions is another matter. They are still the standard-bearers for intelligent metal – the dumbest thing about them is their name – but this record is only the sum of its parts, no more.

This should have been System’s defining work, but instead it ended up overly long and somewhat underbaked, with a second-half dearth of the band’s best qualities. System needs to re-focus, they need to remember what sets them above their peers (hint: it involves remembering who the singer is), and they need to make a single, diamond-hard, 40-minute masterpiece next time out. It’s almost a shame the two albums are so intertwined – Mezmerize, by itself, might have made my top 10 list this year, but the album as a whole doesn’t quite add up.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Next week, I play catch-up.

See you in line Tuesday morning.