Album Reconstruction: System of a Down’s Toxicity & Steal This Album!

Reconstruct Toxicity by System of a Down? Why not be greedy and alter the defining metal album from the Armenian quartet? SOAD was one of the few bands that appealed to me right after the ’90s. Napster revolutionized the music industry and MTV continued down a path I was not in favor of. Metal in the ’90s was in a funk. Toxicity was released a week before 9/11 and it was exactly what the genre needed.

Steal This album! came out just a year after, in 2002. It was a collection of B-sides that didn’t make the cut from Toxicity. I quickly realized that this didn’t sound like your typical B-side album. For starters, there are more songs on the B-side album and they all sound amazing. What happened here?

SOAD went on record saying that songs from Steal This Album! didn’t fit on Toxicity.  “Chic ‘n’ Stu” is a goofy song about pizza while “Roulette” is an acoustic ballad. I love both songs, but I understand why they left them off Toxicity due to their serious political lyrics. While Toxicity has the best SOAD songs in their library, there are a few that I find myself skipping every time. The band recorded an astounding 30 demos and decided which made the cut. If I was in the band, here are my picks among the songs from both albums.

Track 1: “Prison Song”; Track 2: “Needles”

No need to change these. Start the album off hot. The opening note of the album is a giant accent choke from the band followed by three seconds of silence. If your speakers were cranked, that power chord made you jump. A gutsy way to grab the listener right off the bat. What else is evident from these opening songs? The evolution of the band from the self-titled first album while still delivering the classic sound.

Serj Tankian’s vocals are more mature and his lyrics are polished. Daron Malakian, the guitarist who wrote the majority of the band’s music, provided back-up vocals on “Prison Song” and “Needles.” The first album barely featured Daron’s vocals. This completed the classic System of a Down sound going forward. Whether it was harmonies or an occasional scream from Daron, the timbre of his voice complements Serj’s deep range beautifully.

For the drumming, this is John Dolmayan’s best work. His progression from the debut album is apparent. “Prison Song” is fast. His rapid hi-hats hits during the verse are clean and precise. As a young drummer trying to play this song, my triceps would feel the burn. The drumming only gets better as the album goes on.

“Needles” doesn’t let up as the second song. Daron unleashes intense trash riffs throughout. Serj delivers again with his signature eccentric lyrics. “Pull the tape worm out of your ass.” What other band would deliver such a line in a song about the dangers of taking drugs?

Track 3: “Innervision”; Track 4: “A.D.D.”

“Jet Pilot” and “Deer Dance” didn’t make the cut.

“Jet Pilot” has always been my least favorite track on Toxicity. The band admits the lyrics are nonsensical. The vocal shout chorus and guitar riffs are nowhere near as memorable compared to all the other songs. “Deer Dance” is a step down from the opening two songs. The album should kick in high gear here. I understand that great albums can’t be packed with 10 perfect songs. Track 5, “X” fills that slot of solid role player more efficiently in between the band’s best material.

For both songs, much like the entire Toxicity album, the band made sure to inject a plethora of musical genres ranging from metal, trash, punk, and even traditional Armenian music. The melding of styles wasn’t a home run for these songs. “Deer Dance” and “Jet Pilot” aren’t bad in a vacuum, but there are better songs waiting on deck.

The physical limited edition of Toxicity included a second disc with a short behind-the-scenes making-of video (the days when streaming video was still in its infancy). It was mostly the band goofing around in the studio. My favorite parts were the short snippets of each member laying down tracks. Two performances included Shavo playing “A.D.D.” on bass and John playing the drum groove from the bridge of “Innvervision.” I was confused why I couldn’t find these songs on the album. I loved rewinding that groove and blasting the hell out of it on my drum kit.

After finally hearing the drum groove in context, “Innervision” became one of my favorite SOAD tracks on drums. Toxicity lacks an early single chronologically. “Innversion” slots in naturally with the most memorable chorus hook from Steal This Album! “A.D.D” provides more hard-hitting action keeping the pace rolling into the meat of the album. Unlike “Chic ‘n’ Stu” and “Roulette,” both songs ultimately sound like they would fit on Toxicity sonically and lyrically.

Track 5: “X”; Track 6: “Chop Suey!”; Track 7: “Bounce”

This is when Toxicity pumps into high gear. “X” is an underrated gem. Groovy heavy riffs mixed with a few killer drum beats roll us right along into the band’s breakout hit. SOAD was moderately well known from their first single “Sugar.” Everybody knew “Chop Suey!” in high school thanks to the mesmerizing fast lyrics from Serj and the music video that received consistent air time.

While plenty has been said about “Chop Suey!” it’s still worthy to note how ambitious this song is. A SOAD song with an intro acoustic riff, a chorus with orchestral strings in the background, and lyrical content about suicide isn’t a typical occurrence even for SOAD. Nonetheless, this song still managed to connect with the masses.

“Bounce” is hilarious and has one my favorite bridge sections from SOAD. Try not to head bang, I dare you. This is another song where I could never see another band write something similar to “Bounce.”

Track 8: “Bubbles”

“Forest” didn’t make the cut.

“Forest” is the longest track on the album and it drags on. The verses take their time to build while the chorus is forgettable. Nothing really stands out. “Science” does a better job conveying their message of frustration with humanity failing the environment.

“Bubbles” on the other hand is the shortest B-side track (other than the 47-second song “36”). It’s not a song that comes to mind as one of the best songs from Steal This Album! but I rarely skip it. Daron wanted to be a drummer as a kid. His guitar riffs in this song reflect his dedication to gripping rhythms and syncopation while also managing to shape his guitar licks as the lead melody. Ultimately “Bubbles” does a great job in capturing the signature frenetic sound of SOAD.

Track 9: “ATWA”; Track 10: “Science”

These are my favorite back-to-back tracks on Toxicity. I need to listen to both after starting with “ATWA.” Both perfectly placed. The intro on “ATWA” finally gives us a chance to breath with a slow melodic bass riff. Serj and Daron slowly build the vocal melody until the full band kicks in. This is a common trend near the end of the album: Sweeping melodic verses that explode into angsty choruses.

“Science” is Daron’s best guitar work. The opening riff features a popping harmonic on the up-beat that sets the tone for the whole song. Serj and Daron do a seamless job trading the lead melody back and forth from vocals to guitar. The bridge features an amazing sitar part, one of the more unique bridge sections on the album. The section isn’t pretentious nor does it overstay its welcome. For most bands this would seem out of place, but this is a case when the melding of genres works perfectly.

Track 11: “Toxicity”

“Toxicity” is normally track 12, which means I’m cutting “Shimmy.” I couldn’t think of another track that would fit this slot. My personal preference for album length is 13 tracks. Thirteen is the sweet spot for this type of band. Fourteen or more is too much and under 12 is not enough. I’d rather not drag along the album further. I want to get to my personal favorite song on Toxicity.

“Toxicity” is the song that really got me into SOAD. My first-ever karaoke performance was this song. Let’s not bother with how my attempt at Serj’s chaotic vocal style went. One aspect that I could pull off at home was the drum parts on this song. John’s drum fills are spaced in between each short guitar phrase in the chorus section. Really helps each instrument pop in the mix. The performances are so tight that you don’t notice the song is an odd time signature either. You could make the argument that “Toxicity” could be placed earlier in the album since it was the second single, but I’m in favor of spacing out the hits rather than front-loading the album.

Track 12: “Highway Song”

“Psycho” was the only option for a late album song substitution. Another song that I don’t hate at all, but the tempo feels just too slow. I admit this is a hard choice in song writing. What is the correct tempo when recording to a click track? Sometimes you just know while other times you need to experiment. Listen to “Psycho” live. They play it way faster. This is typical of bands to speed up their songs in a live environment. “Psycho” sounds like new song however.

“Highway Song” is my favorite song from Steal This Album! If there’s one hidden gem that I implore you to check out, it’s this song. I have vivid memories of being in Italy listening to the song on repeat while traveling to different cities. It starts out heavy sounding like a typical SOAD tune. The verse quickly changes to a melancholy mood with delicate harmonies from Daron that sneak in at the perfect moment. The lyrics for this song are more introverted and emotional compared the majority of SOAD songs. While the lyrical content may not fit the quintessential SOAD archetype, musically “Highway Song” can’t be relegated to the B-side album.

Track 13: “Aerials”

“Aerials” has grown on me the most over the years. Rick Rubin, the legendary producer who helped make the record, instilled simplicity, and you can tell the band dials back the wackiness for “Aerials.” The super-catchy melodic hook is outlined by bass and guitar in the intro. “Aerials” and “Chop Suey!” both feature orchestral instruments to enhance the emotion of these songs that deal with mental health. Rarely do bands end an album with a single but this is a great choice. I can’t imagine “Chop Suey!” or “Toxicity” concluding the record.

What about “Arto?” Music services like Spotify list “Arto” as another track, but on the original CD it’s a secret track. “Arto” can’t be played without “Aerials” so I consider it one track.

What do you think about my reconstruction? I admit my choices were swayed more from the music side. Lyrically themes are always icing on the cake for me. Not the end-all be-all. One thing we can all agree on, is we all wish SOAD made more music. After listening to Daron’s interview on the Talk is Jericho Podcast, it looks like it will never happen. We’ll just have to appreciate the great catalog they left behind.

Written by Conor ODonnell

Conor is the editor and co-host of the WCW vs NWO Podcast which reviews WCW PPVs 96-98. He is also the editor for highly acclaimed Arena Decklist Podcast which delves deep into the Magic: the Gathering tournament scene.

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