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Toxic Avengers

balancing partying with potent politics, SYSTEM OF A DOWN are the people’s post-9/11 champions.

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Ozzfest crashes Connecticut. Tattooed and pierced masses troll the grounds of the leafy state’s ctnow.com Meadows Music Centre, their red necks glistening under the hot July sun. Hordes of horn dogs pose with leather-bikini-clad dominatrices at a station called ”Pain and Pleasure.” Nearby, wall hangings adorned with naked women and devils are accompanied by a sign imploring visitors to ”BUY A F — -ING TAPESTRY NOW!” A small, barren booth marked ”Axis of Justice” is easy to miss. Here, visitors — if there were visitors — would find literature about the environment, foreign policy, and the Armenian genocide at the hands of Turks during World War I. One concertgoer is distractedly wandering toward the booth when he realizes, Hatebreed’s on! Never mind.

Behind the arena, Serj Tankian, 34, lead singer for headliners System of a Down, slumps into a leather couch on the tour bus and flips on CNN, waiting out the daylong event’s dozen or so other acts.

”Why are we supporting Azerbaijan?” he asks, as if I might have an answer. ”They armed and trained al Qaeda camps near Baku, the capital. But it’s also the oil capital of that area, so we’re building an oil pipeline there. Why aren’t our troops there right now? Because it’s bulls — -. It’s not a war against terrorism, it’s a war against terrorism when it fits our economic purposes.”

Just as I feared, he asks if I’ve visited the ”Axis of Justice” booth. It’s an education project he organized with Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello. I say yes, but don’t have the heart to tell him I was the only one there. It’s hard to imagine Serj — who’s unfamiliar with most of the bands on today’s bill — connecting with the kids who, right about now, are chanting along with Drowning Pool: ”Let the bodies hit the floor!”

Bassist Shavo Odadjian, 27, and guitarist Daron Malakian, 27, on the other hand, connect quite well with a couple of locals who’ve stopped by with some hydroponic weed. A game roadie hauls out a three-foot bong before Shavo tongue-lashes him for his lack of subtlety. He returns with ganja-saurus shrouded in a plastic bag. Combustion begins. As they giggle and stumble around the Porta Potties, Shavo and Daron don’t seem any more prepared than Serj to bring the capacity crowd to its moshing feet.

With darkness descending on the lawn seats, Serj shuffles on stage in his bathrobe, looking readier to launch into a La-Z-Boy than a larynx-shredding scream. But as Daron ignites the grinding guitar arpeggio that opens ”Deer Dance,” heads bang and the suddenly bug-eyed frontman offers the first of many sermons: ”Beyond the Staples Center you can see America with its tired poor avenging disgrace/Peaceful, loving youth against the brutality/Of plastic existence.”

When Daron and Serj croon the soaring harmonies of the System hit ”Chop Suey!” even the ragged Rob Zombie-philes who’ve wandered out to the lawn can’t help but sing along. After a 60-minute set that covers material from System’s caterwauling two-disc catalog, the band closes with a medley of ”Sugar” and ”Prison Song,” spewing statistics about America’s failing penal system while a video projection overhead declares: ”You Are Learning Now.”