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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Toxicity" exhibits masterful mediation of contrast

My old System of a Down favorite is extreme in its timbral changes, but musically consistent — a recipe for an intense, engaging listen.

Hi again. I still feel somewhat lost like I did when I wrote yesterday's post, but I'm also nowhere near as down and out as I was then. Plus, it's the weekend, I'm ahead on some important project work... and I just feel like throwing it back to the 2000s.

I was too young to remember System of a Down releasing Toxicity being, but I remember being captivated by the album from at various points in my childhood and adolescence. Revisiting it again now, I remain impressed by how the record holds up compared to others from that era. I think it has aged so well because System of a Down have never been bogged down by the tropes of nu metal, even though some group them into that category. Rather, their Armenian influences, their rhythm-heavy hooks, their image-filled lyrics, and Serj Tankian's unique vocal presence make System a group whose sound transcends the pop and metal scenes from which they emerged.

The simultaneous beauty and difficulty in me being so impressed by an album is that, for this project's purpose, I have to narrow down my selection to one track. "Chop Suey!" is probably the most enduring song off the record thanks to its video and its combination of darkness and zaniness, while "Forest" is a vastly under-appreciated album cut, and "Aerials" is an excellent closer and final single... but I ended up choosing "Toxicity." It's the song off the record to which I've always gravitated the most — maybe I've always loved changes in time feel — and I still love belting out its lyrics (though I've had to refrain myself from doing so tonight with my roommate working a few feet away).

"Toxicity" has always stood out to me for the stark contrast between the mood of its intro and verses to its choruses and bridge. This contrast is nothing new for System of a Down or much of turn-of-the-century rock, but the degree to which the band make the stylistic distinction is rather extreme — and I love it, to the point that I increase the volume a couple notches every time "Toxicity" comes up in the album or on a playlist. Here's a brief* rundown of the differences between the first verse and the chorus (* = well, as brief as I can afford to get it for my analytical sake). *inhales*

Daron Malakian's calm guitar playing smooth, mid- to high-range intervals, and Shavo Odadjian's bass following similar lines, switch on a dime to low, distorted, stop-and-go rhythms. In between those rhythms, John Dolmayan — who in the verses plays a calm 12/8 backbeat in half-time — lets loose with drum fills that propel the band into two big, measure-long power chords, behind which he liberally incorporates his previously quiet cymbals. Above the instrumental elements, the aforementioned Serj Tankian too switches in his delivery, changing from a clear voice and flowing phrases in his middle range to an aggressive, forward shout of a chorus vocal an octave above the verse. Then, just as quickly as the timbre shifted going into the chorus, it shifts back to the verse, and the listener is soothed back to the softer mood by Tankian's soft humming.

*exhales* Now you get why this song can be such a trip of a listen... and that's before the time feel changes from 12/8 triple meter to 4/4 duple meter in the bridge, a big breakdown that ends up being the most intense hemiola (three-against-two rhythm) of the 21st century. *exhales again, wary of potential music-nerd-induced-hyperventilation* So what manages to glue these sections together to create one of my favorite cuts from the early "noughties"? While the characteristics of the band's sound change, the key of C minor, the lyrical perspective, and Tankian's distinctive voice — along with the song's repeating structure — make it clear that "Toxicity" is a song unto itself.


Speaking to the lyrical consistency, it's clear through Tankian's metaphorical verses and more straightforward chorus that he's making a point about some sort of systemic "disorder" (repeat that word up to three times) that puts humanity "somewhere between the sacred silence and sleep," an unconsciousness that renders those affected critically inactive. It implies a collective complacency, a falling in line with leaders' orders to gather "[m]ore wood for their fires," even while the world is spinning like a 'tire hub.' The lyrical open-endedness — including in the chorus question of "How do you own disorder?", seemingly directed at some leader figure — means one can paint all sorts of blind adherence to destructive norms as being the cause of Tankian's ire. Guitarist Malakian said at a show in 2005 that "Toxicity" is about ADD; if so, the critique may be of medicinal neglect, with the line "Eating seeds as a pastime activity" referencing over-prescribing of medication, or perhaps of its improper use by those who do not have the disorder.

However, considering the messages System of a Down have conveyed in other songs as well as the chorus questions, I hear Daron's ADD callout as a political statement. Nations and political figures attempt to distract the public from bad news via barrages of redirection, blame games, propaganda, etc. The "seeds" being eaten would be the propagandistic lies, while the opening line of "Conversion, software version 7.0" would allude to the sheer quantity of politicians and regimes who have attempted to (for lack of a better word) reprogram their populace. One way or another, it's clear that "[t]he toxicity of our city," and really our world, descends from the top en route to penetrating every corner of the masses underneath. Circling back to the contrast between the song's sections, I hear the verses as the masses passively going through their lives not realizing how they're being manipulated by the established powers above them, while the chorus represents the rage of those aware of and fighting back against such deceit and corruption.

I'm not sure how much I read into the lyrics of "Toxicity" as I actively listen to it, but I do know that I feel the ire of Tankian's narrator character through the contrast between its sections. At the end of the day, that's what you'll take away from any piece of music the most: the way it makes you feel. Whether by association, through investigation, or some combination of the two, that feeling will rise from within you if you hear a piece enough. For me and "Toxicity," that feeling is appreciation of well-placed contrast, sometimes with a side of disdain toward the establishment.


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