90s Score: 8.5/10
2020 Score: 7/10
It’s easy to dismiss System of a Down’s self-titled major label debut as the sound of a band still finding their style. For casual fans, a cursory glance at the record’s tracklist may ring a few vague bells, but it doesn’t contain those instantly recognizable mega-classics the likes of “Chop Suey” or “Hypnotize.”
It’s also missing a few of the key elements that made later SOAD releases so unique. For starters, while Serj Tankian’s voice is fully present and accounted for – and arguably sounding the most unhinged it ever would on a record – it’s missing its partner in crime. Daron Malakian’s voice shows up very rarely, only taking a starring role on the zany lead single “Sugar,” which also happens to be the record’s most recognizable cut. And while Tankian’s voice is as commanding as ever, the lack of the group’s trademark harmonies casts a heavy retrospective shadow.
The other major drawback is that, while the record certainly doesn’t present a lack of creativity, it also doesn’t feature anything that pushed alternative metal into any new territory. While the style they were playing hadn’t reached its peak, per se – for context, Korn’s seminal third album Follow the Leader wouldn’t see release until over a month later – it also wasn’t anything new. The chromatic riffs, the sing-scream song structures, the chugging groove riffs, the lack of flashy guitar acrobatics, the rumbling bite of a heavily down-tuned bass; these were all very much already staples of the time. And later on, just a little past the middle of the album, it starts to suffer from a sameness that doesn’t exist elsewhere in their discography.
But to dismiss this collection outright without appreciating its obvious merits would be doing it a disservice. One thing it’s got going for it is that it is really fucking heavy. System were never really known for being light on the gas pedal, but goddamn, this thing pummels. Right out the gate, “Suite-Pee” hits you over the head with riff after riff, breakdown after breakdown, while Tankian spews vitriolic nonsense about Jesus and fucking his way out of a garden. And it doesn’t let up until “Spiders,” but that song is so genuinely creepy that if it doesn’t give you nightmares after a first listen, you’re not human.
Another thing that you can’t ignore – and seriously, I cannot stress this enough – is that Serj Tankian is in his fucking prime on this record. He screams, growls, croons, yells, belts, and does it all with the conviction of innocent man begging for his life before the executioner flips the switch. For him, this is a career-defining performance.
Oh, and let’s not forget about drummer John Dolmayan. He’s a killer on every one of these songs. Seriously, he slays. While the aforementioned Malakian hadn’t fully come into his own in terms of carrying the songs melodically, Dolmayan provides more than enough flair to elevate some of the more lackluster riffs into true hooks.
So no, it’s not their best record. It’s not their most iconic, and it’s not their most influential. But it sets the bar for metal debuts almost impossibly high. More importantly, it has stood the test of time and doesn’t sound dated at all, which is something almost none of its contemporaries can boast. This is a must-have for any fan of System of a Down, and a must-listen for anyone looking to explore the full scope of their legacy.
Written by Syd Ghan
*Edited by Dominic Abate