The hard-rock cycle seems to be spinning again. For the past couple of years, the genre has hawked up one minor variation on Limp Bizkit after another -- and since the Bizkit's lowest-common-denominator amalgam of metal, rap and misogyny isn't exactly fascinating (a friend of mine calls it "asshole rock"), you can guess how absorbing by-the-numbers imitations of it are. But recent months have seen two heavy-heavy discs that point in more intriguing directions -- Tool's Lateralus, a startlingly precise, practically clinical barrage of sound, followed closely by System of a Down's Toxicity, an impressively eclectic slugfest in which aural surprises lurk beyond every dark corner.
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Not that System, appearing on Friday, September 21, at the Denver Coliseum, with Slipknot, Mudvayne and plenty of other noisemakers, is only interested in difficult time signatures and abrupt tempo changes. Main players Daron Malakian, Serj Tankian, Shavo Odadjian and John Dolmayan also fancy themselves political commentators, and their decidedly radical bent got them into an awkward situation last week. Following the attack on the World Trade Center, Tankian posted a screed on the band's Web site, systemofadown.com, that focused largely on alleged U.S. misdeeds in the Middle East and Third World. Apparently, though, even the group's fans weren't ready to digest this viewpoint, because the item was taken down shortly thereafter; in its place now is a brief, compassion-filled notice attributed to Dolmayan.
The Web site switcharound certainly hasn't hurt the band (this week, Toxicity entered the Billboard album charts at number one), and there's nothing on the disc that should create a backlash -- at least I don't think there is. But at the same time, there are certainly moments on the CD when the musicians spread on their zeal a little too thickly. The opening "Prison Song," for instance, is so crammed with angry factoids ("All research and successful drug policy show that treatment should be increased and law enforcement decreased, while abolishing mandatory minimum sentences!") that the tune is almost comically eager. Questions linger about the rigorousness of the group's philosophies in other areas, too. "Shimmy" makes legitimate points about the sausage-factory aspects of public schools ("Education, subjugation, now you're out, go"), and "Psycho" belittles the stereotyping of female fans that too many of its peers are happy to perpetuate, via lines such as, "So you want to watch the show?/ You don't have to be a ho." But "ATWA" is an intellectually suspect attempt to portray Charles Manson as a martyr to the environmental cause. Yeah, and the late serial killer/cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer has a lousy reputation because of the rising tide of radical vegetarianism.
Fortunately, the complexities of the Downers' music is an effective counterbalance for their often simple polemics. "Needles" places quasi-rap verses delivered with the stentorian formality of a military-school inductee alongside death-metal growling and a harmonically rich middle section that explodes in a fury of pistonlike guitars and bloodthirsty drumming; "Chop Suey," the first single, somehow manages to shift back and forth between acoustic interludes of unexpected beauty and pounding sonic confrontations without seeming schizophrenic; "Forest" rests atop a rhythmically thorny underpinning that enhances, rather than undermines, its essential aggressiveness; and "Science" uses Eastern elements to emphasize its attack on the church of technology.
The meticulousness of these numbers sometimes recalls art rock, and if such elements are allowed to expand unchecked, the results won't be pretty: I don't know about you, but I'd prefer a few more Fred Durst wannabes over a million Emerson, Lake and Palmer impressionists. But right here, right now, Toxicity feels like a harbinger of better, smarter hard rock to come. Pray it turns out that way.