Recognition–restoration–reparation-demanding System Of A Down plays to capacity crowd at Souls 2005
By Jenny Kiljian
System Of A Down–set to drop a new album in two weeks–did anything but hype at the sold-out Souls 2005 concert in Los Angeles on April 24. Playing only three songs from their highly anticipated release of Mesmerize/Hypnotize–the band instead rallied the perspiration-soaked–frenzied crowd at the Universal Amphitheatre to pay homage to the 1.5 million victims of the Armenian genocide–waged by the Ottoman Empire from 1915-1918 and still denied by the present-day government of Turkey.
As at the previous two Souls concerts–the program began with a video-clip from Peter Jennings’ 1999 report on the Armenian genocide from "The Century," in which the veteran anchor interviews genocide survivors and historians in a montage that can be taken as a clear-cut indictment:
"It is sometimes called ?the Armenian holocaust.’ And one of its perpetrators–Talaat Pasha–is known to Armenia’s as the Turkish Hitler," says Jennings. "Look at what is happening now to the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo–and you can follow a line that leads–finally–here: to the near annihilation of the Turkish Armenia’s in 1915. It was–quite simply–the first genocide of the 20th century."
After the visibly riled audience had marinated over the images of Talaat Pasha and the corpses of massacred Armenia’s–the band–clad entirely in black–began their 25-song set with the blistering new single–"B.Y.O.B.," an acronym for ?Bring Your Own Bombs.’ The disco-imbued track–which takes President Bush to task for the war in Iraq–last week reached No. 9 on Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks chart.
The quartet of Armenian descent–Serj Tankian–lead vocals; Daron Malakian–guitars and vocals; bassist Shavo Odadjian–and drummer John Dolmayan–have been committed to ongoing efforts to raise awareness of the Armenian genocide–and other global abuses of human rights–including the genocide in Sudan.
Before steamrolling the audience with "Holy Mountains," another ditty from Mesmerize–guitarist Malakian uttered one sentence that sent chills through the predominantly Armenian crowd–a message that will likely reach ears in Ankara–"Listen Turkey," he shrilled. "Ararat and Massis are ours!"
"We didn’t start this band to change the world," he announced prior to launching into "Aerials."We didn’t start this band to change your mind. We started this band to make you ask questions."
Malakian (who penned Steal This Album’s romantic ballad "Roulette") then melted hearts with "Julietta," a classic Armenian love song made popular by contemporary singer Harout Pamboukjian. The band also delighted the audience with their take on George Michael’s 1980s hit "Everything She Wants."
As Malakian occasionally made a mad dash across the length of the stage–Odadjian paced around his quarter–staring bug-eyed at the crowd–and twitching his head to the music. Dolmayan pummeled the audience in alternating bouts of frenetic double-bass–crash and splash cymbals. Tankian–his eyes often solemnly closed–raised his arms to the sky as if he were praying or divining mystical energy.
After a medley of songs that covered their entire discography–the band ended the rollicking set with "P.L.U.C.K." (Politically–Lying–Unholy–Cowardly Killers)–in which Tankian insistently chants the refrain "Recognition–Restoration–Restoration," placing the blame of "a whole race genocide" squarely on Turkey.
But System had another surprise up their sleeves before making their exit–a guitar-driven version of the anthemic patriotic song "Sardarabad," whose lyrics advise Armenia’s of all generations to identify themselves with the historic 1918 battle–when a shoestring Armenian regiment defended the Ararat Valley against the invading Turkish Army–eventually defeating them and forcing them to retreat. The Armenian element in the crowed proudly waved their tricolor flags and roared along with Tankian–who has cited revolutionary music as his inceptive influence–and was a member of the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) in his teenage years (see sidebar).
Proceeds from Sunday’s show benefited several organizations–including Amnesty International; the Armenian National Committee of America; the Center for the Prevention of Genocide (CPG); and Axis of Justice–Tankian’s political action group with Tom Morello.
"I know they are Armenia’s and I know they are promoting awareness of the Armenian genocide–but more importantly they’re promoting awareness of all genocide–past present and future," said 25-year-old Chris Sirounian–a long-time fan who also attended the two previous Souls concerts. "It allows everyone who listens to System to realize what is happening in the world today–with their music–or booths outside the venue–about atrocities such as those in Darfur. You don’t have to be Armenian to understand what System is saying in their music."
System Of A Down will be out in support of Mesmerize–the first of two discs they will release this year. That set arrives May 17 via American Recordings–while the second album–Hypnotize–is due in the fall. Fresh off a three-show European tour–they’re now running around the United States on a 10-date "guerilla club tour," playing small venues and debuting a couple of songs from Mezmerize. The band will appear as musical guests on the NBC network’s Saturday Night Live on May 7–and treat the multiple millions of viewers to "B.Y.O.B." and "Chop Suey," the smash single from Toxicity.
The band also announced a summer tour–their first in three years. While specific dates have yet to be confirmed–the band will kick off the two-month trek in early August–and will play in arenas throughout North America. The Mars Volta is on the bill as special guests on all of the tour dates; a third act–yet to be announced–will open the shows.
Asbarez Armenian Daily Newspaper editorial assistant Ani Shahinian contributed to this report.
Serj Tankian Gets ?Down’ to the Nitty Gritty
Critics chided System Of A Down’s eponymous first disc for apparently relying too heavily on expletives to generate anger and resolve in listeners. Whether in response to the criticism or because they matured as individuals and musicians–their music has mushroomed into a sensual–percussive–intelligent satire of the establishment–replete with nose-thumbing lyrical underpinnings.
In trying not to pigeonhole these spectrum-hopping musicians–these same critics have now been parroting each other faster than they can say ?derivative.’ Dozens have likened Tankian’s contralto coloratura on the new albums to 1980s icon–the late Queen frontman Freddy Mercury.
The busy activist took some time out of the band’s newly nomadic schedule to answer some questions for the Armenian Weekly.
Armenian Weekly: How did you and the band come up with the idea for Souls?
Serj Tankian: Souls was a way for us to commemorate April 24–use the event to garner media attention to the Armenian genocide and its denial–and raise funds for worthy organizations and projects working to teach about genocide and holocaust–legislative action–survivor documentation–etc. It was also a way for us to communicate directly with our fans about the Genocide.
AW: When did you decide it would work better on April 24–as the first Souls was in November of 2003?
ST: We decided to do that last year–since it would be more symbolic and stand in unison with all the efforts of our Armenian community worldwide in commemoration.
AW: What has the response been like from the Armenian community–and from non-Armenia’s?
ST: Amazing on both ends.
AW: Have you received any negative reactions from Turkish-Americans or ethnic Turks?
ST: Not really. I think people know what we stand for–whether it’s our opposition to the war in Iraq–which most Turks agree with [us]–or our opposition to Turkey’s denial of the Genocide–which some Turks agree–or disagree with.
AW: Have you received any feedback from the music industry and your fellow musicians about your message–the Souls concert and your music?
ST: Many journalists in our industry–and fans alike–have thanked us for informing them about the Genocide. We get emails of students in high schools and colleges who are doing their thesis on the Genocide and are teaching their fellow students and–in some cases–their teachers–as well.
AW: What is the latest news from Axis of Justice? Do you think your radio show could be syndicated eventually?
ST: Axis continues its work daily. Our Los Angeles chapter is very active now. We have weekly homeless feeding events in Venice with Food Not Bombs–and do many philanthropic events/donations/benefit concerts–etc. Our Web site–www.axisofjustice.org–is a good source for alternative news–and our radio show will find its way into syndication eventually. We’re on XM satellite–as well as KPFK in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.
AW: Are there any new songs from Mesmerize/Hypnotize that deal with human rights issues?
ST: Yes–there are. However–most of it is open to interpretation as we would rather people internalize art than be preached to. That said–the music is not limited to social or political content. Most of the songs touch upon personal narrative–theorizing–and humor is probably the most prevalent component.
AW: How do you think your music has impacted the causes of other–possibly non-Armenian–human rights groups–such as those working for the recognition human rights violations in Darfur–Rwanda–Cambodia–and Bosnia? Have the people who were victimized in these atrocities ever reached out to you for guidance–or to say that your music has inspired or affected them?
ST: We’ve actually reached out to different organizations that represent the victims in the cases of Darfur–Rwanda–and Cambodia. All three had booths outside our Souls 2005 show along with Axis of Justice–Amnesty International–and the Armenian National Committee of America.
AW: How have you and the band been impacted by the past three years of Souls shows–and by the life on the road?
ST: We just started touring again recently–but will be out for a while according to my schedule. Last year’s Souls show was one of our most emotional ever. It was different than anything else we’ve ever done with our music.
AW: Do you think you’ll take Souls out of Los Angeles–at least to do an East Coast show?
ST: We thought about doing that this year actually. We were originally planning to have Souls in New York City–but the logistics of our schedule directed us otherwise.
AW: Could you touch on your Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) experience and tell us how it motivated and impacted you?
ST: Being in AYF throughout my youth opened my eyes to activism and the importance of fighting injustice. It’s very important not to be myopic in cases of activism–though. Because all injustice–as the world–is one.
Souls 2005 set list:
"Kill Rock ?n’ Roll"