System of a Down’s Debut Record Was a Nu-Metal Milestone
I may be biased due to my love for System of a Down, but their 1998, self-titled album was a major milestone for the evolution of extreme metal. And with the album’s 25th anniversary taking place last Friday, it’s high time we look back and recognize just how great this release really was.
When it comes to the nu-metal camp, I was always most impressed with System of a Down and Slipknot. They both seemed to demonstrate the depths the genre could go to, but in different ways. System of a Down never truly fit the nu-metal mold, as they borrow tropes from death metal, traditional Armenian music, and even noise.
I assume most other millennials got into this record the way I did: after Toxicity, the 2001 album that broke them into the radio rock circuit. I loved Toxicity, and then when it became evident that I had more than a passing interest in metal and wanted to delve into various band’s discographies, I went back and discovered this gem.
While SOAD come off a bit silly and meme-esque now, it’s important to frame their debut in the context of the times, for those who weren’t around. Radio rock had just come out of the yarl-singing phase, and nu-metal was the new hotness. A lot of the music on the radio, even if it was “heavy,” was Nickleback-ish, saccharine, and sappy. Then you get a band that wasn’t afraid to rap, scream, include death metal riffs, openly talk shit on the government, and sing about the Armenian genocide. It wasn’t just radical or musically explosive; it was both of those things at once.
And while that sound really got the mainstream’s attention with Toxicity, a listen back to the debut self-titled record shows that the band already had a handle on their sound and their source material before they had a taste of fame. They kept it loud and heavy, but they always had a signature sound that paired unique vocals and really heavy metal—arguably some of the heaviest in their genre.
Plus, while Toxicity is a masterpiece, it does have the disadvantage of being aware of its place in the spotlight. It may be cliche, but System of a Down is such a good album because it came about before they had to worry about creating any singles or radio-friendly tracks. Not that SOAD let that keep them from being weird and unique, but they toned it down a bit. This first album is heavy, and with the same weird elements that make them who they are.
Out of its tracklist, “Sugar” is the track most people know from this record. It’s always been my favorite track, as it’s one of the more aggressive cuts from the record and it’s just a lot of fun. “War?” is always a great one to scream along to as well. The song “P.L.U.C.K.” is about the Armenian genocide and even then, they keep it really weird and loud.
But the truth is, it’s hard to find just one stand-out song on the album, as it’s one of those old-school metal records where half the point is how well it flows and the way the songs work together. The sum is greater than the pieces, and the songs all work together beautifully.
So, if you’re from a new generation of nu-metal discoverers and haven’t given this record a chance yet, or if you’re nostalgic for what you used to blast in the early 2000s, give this 25-year-old record a spin.