JTF’s HS Jams Review — 1) System of a Down’s Self Titled

One of my favorite discoveries from the last five years or so was Two Minutes to Late Night — a late-night talk show style YouTube series that’s all about heavy metal and comedy created by Jordan Olds (Gwarsenio Hall) and Drew Kaufman (Kevin the Sound Guy).

The pilot episode, shot on location at the famous Saint Vitus bar in New York, featured Weather Correspondent Ryan Phillippe presenting the weather report from Glenn Danzig’s house, The Dillinger Escape Plan’s Ben Weinman auditioning to be in an all-girl R&B band, a hysterical game called Squeal of Fortune, singer-songwriter Laura Stevenson and most importantly, house band MUTOID MAN

The guys would take their no-budget pilot and turn it into a fan-funded YouTube series complete with a fun new podcast (Pod Minutes to Cast Night), a great line of merchandise, a SLEW of COVID-era “bedroom cover” songs that feature a countless number of heavy metal elites and a new series where host Gwarsenio Hall reviews CDs from his high school music collection. 

This has inspired me to do the same, though it would take years for me to fully review every piece of music I collected while I was in high school. In lieu of this, I have decided to review the 10 records that I appreciated the most in high school. A few caveats: 

1) The album had to have been released when I was a teenager.

2) I had to actually own the CD, booklet and everything — not a burned copy.

3) I could not possibly decide on an order of importance so these are in no particular order.

These are going to be (hopefully) short and sweet. Sound like fun? Let’s go. 

1. System of a Down — System of a Down

Released June 30, 1998, on American Recordings; Produced by the great Rick Rubin

In 1999 I was a freshman in high school. I wore loose-fitting carpenter jeans, had a goatee and was obsessed with Limp Bizkit. My first high school class ever was a typing/word processing class where we’d sit in front of these tiny-house-sized PC computers running Windows 3.1 with a metal wire easel that was made to hold textbooks that opened vertically. Our typing textbooks included a variety of typing tests, keyboard memorization exercises and many dated references. My teacher was a woman in her mid-30s who had a young child whom she helicopter mommed big time — a window was installed on his bedroom door so she could keep an eye on him and he was forbidden from watching cartoons or listening to pop music. She loved music, however, and thought that it was imperative that we listen to it while we typed during the day. I love music, too, but her favorite kind of working music was Mannheim Steamroller and Kenny G. Over the course of that semester, I probably listened to Breathless 20 or 30 times. That was now 22 years ago and to this day I still hope to never hear it again. 

I also made my first new friend in that class: Ricky. Ricky, like me, was a budding punker with a taste for more extreme styles of music, metal and otherwise. Limp Bizkit’s Three Dollar Bill Y’all$ was all over MTV along with KoRn’s Follow the Leader and we were both obsessed with them. It was this year that Limp Bizkit came to Knoxville for a headlining show …

… and my mom wouldn’t let me go. I was too young to go to such a show, she claimed, and neither she nor Chuck would go with me (they hated Limp Bizkit, and for good reason). I was devastated that I couldn’t go but was thrilled to find out Ricky had tickets and would be making the trip to Knoxville to see the show. I waited around the morning after to talk to him about it — how was it? What was the setlist? What was Wes Borland wearing? All questions he answered but not until after he dropped a bomb on me.

Dude, Limp was rad but the opening act was even better! It’s some newer band I’ve never heard of called System of a Down. 

He told me they were heavier, wonkier, way more energetic and completely stole the show. I was excited to look them up as soon as I could (which meant going to the local corporate-owned CD store and asking to sample it — streaming music or YouTube were not things yet). Ricky did me one better, though, as he reached into his bookbag and pulled out their debut CD. 

The album’s cover art was intriguing — an anti-facist poster designed by a German communist in the 1920s. I would quickly learn that the art’s mysteriously dark, foreboding, yet almost comedic design was a perfect reflection of the musical genius of the band who chose it to represent their debut. I asked if I could listen to it that day (I always had my portable CD player and headphones with me) and he agreed.

I was greeted by the twinkle-toes guitar intro to Suite Pee — a song about religious extremism and pedophilia in the church. The opening line I had an out of body experience the other day; her name was Jesus blew my mind with so much metaphor and word play happening. It was fast, spooky, controversial, had a heavy breakdown and ended in pure chaos. I was immediately hooked. 

Know comes in next with several movements of groove and thrash before SOAD’s first big single Sugar takes over. Sugar was mine and Ricky’s favorite song on the album and it’s to this day one of my favorite metal songs. The circus-like chord progression of the chorus loops over and over like cartwheeling clowns followed by a stripped-down bass line and drum part that adds to the jazz element of the song. Jazz? If you listen closely to the entire record you can hear those elements of jazz, metal, punk, funk and even traditional Aremenian music. 

Lyrically, it’s hard to find another metal band who can keep up with Serj and the guys. Soil takes on the philosophy of suicide while War? covers the practice of demonizing “the other” and finding other justifiable reasons for going to war. Mind creatively covers the concept of totalitarianism and the retardation of society pops up in the lyrics to CUBErt. And as if any of this isn’t heavy enough, album closer P.L.U.C.K. shines light on Armenian genocide committed by the Turkish government. 

From a lyrical standpoint, my favorites include Peephole and Ddevil. Peephole celebrates the creative freedom and stress relief that comes from being high before warning the listener of the dangers of using drugs and getting high as a means of escaping their reality. 

Do you believe, when you’re high, that your life is tried? 

Don’t ever get stuck in the sky when you’re high.

Personally I’ve always been anti-drug but am also anti-drunkenness for the same reasons. It’s good to let loose every once in a while but if your substance is being used as a bandaid to fix your life’s problems, then you’re merely creating more problems for yourself while simultaneously hoarding pre-existing issues that will never go away. 

Ddevil is another song I identify with strongly as I’ve spent much of my life studying world religions and noticing a lot of overlap, a lot of similarities — Plagiarized existence exists among the writers of the word.

Stupid people do stupid things, smart people outsmart each other, then themselves — illustrates (to me) how those who are religious scholars tend to act irrationally in the name of their faith, quarrel with those who they actually agree with and frequently contradict themselves. The first hook Take me down there, photographic relapse; people feeding frenzy; the devil is so lovely hits me in a way that says I’m trying new things, seeing the same stuff, followers of these faiths are being exploited and I can’t help but keep returning to my own philosophies, an approach that I’ve been told is unacceptable from a religious standpoint (aka, the “devil”), when in reality we all create our own faith-based reality, regardless of what it’s based on.

The album would go on to be certified gold by the RIAA and maxed on the Billboard charts at 124 (what!?) Their followup album Toxicity (2001) would go triple platinum and include all successful singles including a number one hit … but I have a soft spot for this self-titled debut and hold that despite not being as big of a commercial success as Toxicity, it is the stronger album. I like to think that it was the gateway that helped me make the leap from the more mainstream metal I was into at the time to the heavier, darker and downright wackier stuff I would later go on to discover.

Not to mention my punk rock attitude. 

Shake your spear at Shakespeare! 

Ever onward; See you next week?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s