It’s impressive that, fifteen years after their last full album release, System of a Down remain one of the most famous names in metal. Their place is well deserved, with three critically well-received albums artfully interweaving politically and personally articulate lyrics with cathartic ear-destroying arrangements. Even before I had much appreciation for metal as a genre, I was drawn to their unique profile for exactly this reason; their sound opts for softly shouted, devastating reflections on everyday life, ranging from existence altogether, to the banalities of living in a modern and supposedly civilized society. Anyone familiar with the band will know that all four members are of Armenian-American heritage, and as such, it seems obvious why the recent conflict, one which seems to pose an existential threat to sections of Armenia, would be the catalyst to bring about new work.
The two new songs, which were released together on the 6th of November, were recorded in only a month in direct response to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. While Protect the Land was written by Damon Malakian for his other band, Genocidal Humanoidz was written from scratch for the purpose. Given the political rift between band members and the time passed since they were last in the studio together, this is no mean feat.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict erupted in September as the culmination of years of hostility between Kazakhstan and Armenia over a disputed region between the two countries. The conflicts origins go back centuries, but particularly pertinent are the events around the region just after the First World War, when the British handed control of the self-governing state to an appointee of the Azerbaijani government despite widespread protests amongst the Ethnic Armenians of the region. The region has officially been under Azerbaijani control ever since.
The conflict erupted anew in 1988 after Armenian protests, leaving thousands dead and displaced. In 1994 a ceasefire was declared and the region was recognised as autonomous by Azerbaijan. In spite of the ceasefire numerous conflicts have sprung up since, including the one in September. Armenia at this point controlled only 14% of the territory despite the region’s population being 80% ethnic Armenian.
The band argued, in an interview to promote the new songs, that the Azerbaijani government were attempting to use the blind spot created by the west’s distraction with the Coronavirus Pandemic to try and occupy the long-disputed territory. This sense of outrage and intolerance of injustice is clearly communicated in the more lyrically focused ‘Protect the Land’. On their 2005 album Mezmerize, they released B.Y.O.B. (Bring Your Own Bombs) a thematically similar song that looked at conflict in the context of the Iraq war. By comparison, Protect the Land stands in stark contrast. The frantic, chaotic pace of the former is replaced with a far more ordered, yet equally memorable arrangement. The lyrics were, according to the songwriter and guitarist Daron Malakian, intended to provide a boost of morale to the Armenian people on the ground in Nagorno-Karabakh, and this certainly carries through.
The band has always had an interesting relationship with lyrical nuance and, in this particular case, their position is understandably very clear. If System of a Down’s music could ordinarily be described as anthemic, Protect the Land feels decidedly like a national anthem. With condemning lyrics as explicit as ‘If they’re evil now then evil they will stay’, and ‘Our history and victory and legacy we send, from scavengers and invaders and those who protect the land’. There’s a distinct sense that they’ve succeeded in creating the sort of morale-boosting track they were looking to make. For those focused purely on the music itself, there’s plenty to be enjoyed. Shredding, anarchic arrangements with a strong underlying sense of political justice is very much what fans expect from a band who’s lyrics cover everything from pornography to prison reform.
Genocidal Humanoidz, the E.P’s second track, feels in some ways a lot truer to the style of older System of a Down songs. The unambiguous, patriotic lyrics and arrangement of Protect the Land are replaced with a much more familiar feeling of organised chaos with a strong central message: “we never run from the devil”. They have the same sort of wit one can recognise on some of their best songs from earlier albums. The hook of the song is “Guess who’s coming over to dinner? The genocidal humanoids!” and this somehow manages to perfectly express the sense of resignation and pessimism one is easily able to feel when faced with humanity’s apparent inability to do away with its more primitive inclinations. The song feels like it takes a larger look at conflict and human behaviour in general, doing away with the relatively upbeat message of ‘Protect the Land’. It still feels like a call to war, but there is a sense that this is how the band really feels about the situation, and that Protect the Land is simply an attempt at optimism in the face of truly depressing circumstances.
Whilst both tracks live up to the standards of the band’s old music, Genocidal Humanoidz feels more true to their sound. It’s a shame that it’s only two and a half minutes, but they’re enjoyable ones nevertheless. And given the likelihood of seeing another release from System of a Down any time soon, it’s probably best to get as many listens out of all seven minutes of the new tracks as possible, since we can presumably expect another five minutes in about 15 years.
As of the 10th of November a truce has been signed and a ceasefire agreed, but with many dead or displaced the situation is not over. Many organisations are involved with humanitarian efforts including the Armenia Fund, which you can find here. For up-to-date info on the conflict and results, click here.
Written by Robert Carden