Toxicity: A Prophecy Fulfilled 20 Years Later
One of the best metal albums ever, Toxicity is as relevant now in 2021, as it was in 2001. Unfortunately for humanity, this is not a good thing.
How do you own the world? How do you own disorder?
I can try to categorize System Of A Down as a thrash metal band with a splash of hardcore punk because they sound like if Slayer and Suicidal Tendencies formed a supergroup, everyone in the band was Armenian, and the lead singer had this theatrical delivery, with a vocal range as wide as the Grand Canyon. Their sound is old school metal-punk with undeniable Old-World influences. You know, music with guitar riffs as heavy as the Titanic that pivot at a moment’s notice and clock speeds fast enough to make Hermes dizzy, but with mandolins and chanting mixed in every once in a while. There exists only one band to pull these elements together in such a unique way that they absolutely cannot be mistake for any other band when you hear them play.
SOAD have remained authentic to themselves from their debut up until their very public hiatus, and thus hold an exclusive place on my Mt. Rushmore of favorite music acts, book ended by titans of hip-hop Wu-Tang Clan and OutKast, nestled up against their fellow Angelino politico-rock brethren, Rage Against the Machine. Toxicity is the apex of SOAD’s sound and energy; the type of music that fueled car karaoke performances while stuck in the infamous So Cal traffic (“When angels deserve to diiiiiieeeee!) and late-night skateboard sessions around the campus of Cal State San Bernardino (a dangerous quest not because of the roaming packs of coyotes for which the university’s mascot is named, but for the vagrant humans who often lurked in the shadows of the buildings and shrubs).
This band often, and unfairly, gets lumped into the nu-metal generation with Korn and Limp Bizkit by the uninitiated simply because they all arrived on the scene around the same time, during the peak nu-metal flurricane of the late-90s. Therefore, they’re all kind of the same thing. NOPE! SOAD packs the rawness of Korn’s audio aesthetic and some of the jocular lyrics of the Bizkit, except Limp Bizkit took themselves seriously, and SOAD was cognizant enough to make songs that were absurd for the sake of being absurd, not because they were trying too hard to be hard. On Toxicity, songs like “Needles,” “Bounce,” and “Psycho” are silly, and perhaps offensive because they are so silly. These songs have meaning, but consider lead singer, Serj Tankian’s, lyrics:
I cannot disguise, All the stomach pains, And the walking of the cane, When you, do come out, And you whisper up to me in your life of tragedy, But I cannot grow, Till you eat the last of me, Oh when will I be free, And you, a parasite, Just find another host, Just another fool to roast, Cause you, My tapeworm tells me what to do, You, My tapeworm tells me where to go, Pull the tapeworm out of your ass, hey (x4)
I went out on a date, With a girl, a bit late, She had so many friends, Gliding through many hands, I brought my pogo stick, Just to show her a trick, She had so many friends, Gliding through many hands, Jump Pogo … Bounce Pogo
Psycho, Groupie, Cocaine, Crazy (x3), Psycho Groupie Coke, Makes you high, Makes you hide, Makes you really want to go — Stop
However, just as quickly as the band shifts their music composition from heavy thrashing to melodic grooving, Serj matches his mates, moving from talking about groupies and orgies to Dadaism poetry slams against, well, the system — meatier topics, like how humans transcend from this realm upon death by their own hand (“Chop Suey”), the evils of the for-profit prison system in the United States (“Prison Song”), police brutality (“Deer Dance”), the dangers of materialism and propaganda (“Toxicity”), and the dissolution of “self” (“Aerials”). Proper nu-metal bands, like Limp Bizkit, were only ever really concerned about photocopying the most braggadocious aspects of hip-hop, like the disingenuous cultural tourists that they were. Toxicity is at its strongest where the music and lyrics turned the mirror on our modern society and asked us to take a look at all of the ugliness and shame hidden under the veneer of faux exceptionalism.
Life’s rhythms move in circles, where the present can mimic the past or call back to moments in history when the narrative changed forever. Toxicity came out one week before 9/11, an event that prompted years of paranoia aimed against Muslims and global terrorism, invasions of privacy for the sake of national security, and the U.S. military invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan in the name of freedom and revenge. It seems like more than a strange coincidence that this album celebrates its 20th anniversary the very same week that war in Afghanistan finally ended.
Grab a brush and put a little makeup, Hide the scars to fade away the shakeup
I bought Toxicity the day it came out, on a Tuesday afternoon, on my way home from work. Shift ended at 2pm. I was at Fred Meyer near my parents’ house around 45 minutes later, CD in hand, life changed. One week later, I had finished up that summer job and was a few days away from moving into my dorm at the aforementioned CSUSB. I’d been getting up at 3:45am every weekday from mid-June to mid-September to get to the warehouse I was working at for my 5am shift. On this Tuesday, September 11, I planned on sleeping in because I’d earned it and because I’d been out late the previous night enjoying my friends’ company. I didn’t get the benefit of those extra hours of sleep, though. Somewhere around 8:55am, my step-dad busted into the room, a little bit frantic, a little in shock, shouting, “Nick, get up! You’re not going to believe this. A plane flew into the World Trade Center.” Who knows what the hell is happening when they’re woken up like that? I didn’t, but he insisted I get up and see it for myself on TV, and I did. When he said “plane”, I thought a Cessna. Back then, who would have thought he meant a jet liner? I made it downstairs about one minute before the second plane hit the South Tower.
That horrific day when Twin Towers fell, watching the nightmare unfold on TV screens after the two commercial jets slammed into them, causing innocent people trapped at the top of those enormous buildings — 20th century monuments of American capitalism — to leap out windows and fall from the sky, the Towers crumbling to the ground, into gigantic clouds of death, people running and screaming away from them through the streets of lower-Manhattan, those moments are seared into the memories of all of us who watched it happen. Fast-forward two decades to watch another nightmare unfold on our TV and smartphone screens. Thousands of innocent Afghani people trying to flee the Taliban in Kabul, clinging to planes, falling from the sky.
Toxicity was already in my heavy rotation, and it stayed there for months, but after 9/11, it took on a new meaning. Its grave warnings of attempting to control a world of disorder, of chaos, of the overreaching power of a police state and brutality committed by those who believe they are above the law, of mourning and questioning the loss of the angels who walk among us rang louder than they did before our world changed, and 20 years later, those warnings continue to manifest before our eyes, in this bizarre reality.
I hope Billy Wimsatt heard this song because it’s one with his spirit. Serj drops knowledge. Daron, Shavo, and John fueling the tempo with nitro.
It’s SOAD’s signature song, deservedly so, emoting grief via churning mosh pit and punishing percussion, lifting an open mouth to the heavens to lament the gods for damning us here on Earth.
A humongous middle-finger to the extrinsic, and empty, happiness that we find in materialism, which ultimately pollutes our spirit.