Have you ever been trapped in a small space — say, a bus, subway car, or elevator — with a deranged or intoxicated person spewing nonstop, free-associative verbiage in a singsong manner? Often, such encounters are unpleasant. But every once in a while it’s possible to discern astute observations, home truths, and primitive poetry pouring from an apparently unhinged individual’s mouth.
Listening to the new System of a Down album, Mezmerize, is a little like that. SOAD guitarist-singer-songwriter Daron Malakian and vocalist Serj Tankian sing, declaim, gargle, and shriek words that often seem to be pure twaddle (”Gonorrhea gorgonzola/Single files of clean feedings”). Every so often, they spit out a hard-hitting, linear lyric (”Why don’t presidents fight the war?/Why do they always send the poor?”). Whatever they’re ranting about, they put their message across with enough conviction to keep you riveted.
Yet what really makes Mezmerize the most, well, mesmerizing System of a Down album yet is the music. In the past, the band’s records often seemed like crazy-quilt collections of thrown-together breakneck-speed riffs and halfway-there ideas. Here, the tempos are just as aggressively rampaging, but every song has a strong, memorable chorus; each instrumental motif sticks to your synapses. It’s heavy and hooky — an unassailable combination, and one that co-producers Rick Rubin and Malakian have honed to perfection.
If the funky, politically charged chorus of ”B.Y.O.B.” sounds ripe for transplant to an R & B remix, elsewhere System seem to be staking out wholly uncharted musical turf. Well, almost. With their penchant for tricky time shifts and munchkins-on-helium operatics, SOAD often recall no one so much as — no lie, kids — the late Frank Zappa. On Mezmerize, the connection seems more explicit than ever, right down to the subject matter. Indeed ”Cigaro,” with its blunt phallic references, is a close cousin to such notorious Zappa efforts as ”Bwana Dik,” and the anti-television ”Violent Pornography” recalls Uncle Frank’s similarly themed ”I’m the Slime.” (Personal to the System guys: If you ever need a novelty B side, think about covering ”Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow.” It’s you, dudes.)
One last thing: System deserve big kudos for having the wit to embrace brevity. Mezmerize clocks in at just over 36 minutes (a companion disc, Hypnotize, is due in the fall), which is right about the point where most high-intensity albums get enervating. Less is more — now, there’s a strategy Zappa (not to mention that cat railing about Black Sabbath, Jesus Christ, and World War III on the subway last night) never seemed to grasp.