Itís a hideous Sunday afternoon in the suburbs.
A morning that began with a hovering, omnipresent mist and temperatures
below 40 descends by steps into an afternoon of wind-driven
sleet. The shivers of ice pellets hurl themselves into you horizontally.
Gales and gusts transform mere precipitation into a thousand
minute daggers of frozen antipathy, natureís frigid curse thrown
back at you for past transgressions. Itís 2:00PM and traffic
has been snarled for the last two miles. All the acolytes, freshly
released from morning services and glutted at the alter of the
brass-and-ferns, are making their way through the sludge and
slush to commence the final stage of their day of worship, the
High Mass of Mall. Somehow the Gods have conspired to place
you here, in the parking lot of Best Buy, and when you throw
open the passenger side door this is what greets you. A thousand
tiny pellets of glacial buckshot slam into your face at right
angles, mocking the very existence of the hooded jacket you
so thoughtfully dug out of storage 90 minutes ago.
Itís best not to ask.
A twenty-second trot from car to supernatural motion-sensored
door and youíre sucked into the space of the store, the glass
panes seamlessly parting like the Red Sea at Mosesí beck and
call, releasing the physical force of the cultural vacuum behind
it. Raw nature pushing, the physics of emptiness pulling, you
really have no choice. Youíre just in. The void snaps
shut behind you and for better or for worse you are contained
within the beast. If you squint, the all-smiles greeter could
Super-mega-stores are built on the same architectural blueprint
as medieval cathedrals. A central archway (arches often removed,
but still a central archway) extends from the entry vestibule
creating an x-axis nave. In the distance, usually about three-quarters
of the way down the central aisle a second axis slashes across
the y-plane. North transept. South transept. Cruciform.
Parallel aisles flank the nave. Small niches on either side
house individual chapels. ÖTo your left, Poetís Corner, to your
right, CDs and DVDs. Up ahead the chapels of the Lady and Edward
the Confessor. Laptops 35% off. Behind the Coronation Chair
the quire is filled with 50Ē flat-screen TVs. Hey look, The
Daytona 500 is in rain delay! Is this real, Memorex, or a fever
dream of dying?
ďYou okay?Ē the lovely Mrs. asks.
ďIím fine. Cold.Ē
Itís best not to ask. Why is it that Iíve never considered
listening to even a single one of the ďbest sellers?Ē Is this
a statement about the void of our culture or am I just being
a snob? Who the hell is 50 Cents? How is Ozzy still alive, much
less popular? Okay, I can see the appeal of t.A.T.u. even if
it is a load of shit. Why doesnít that System of a Down CD have
a cover insert?
Now, look, Iím all about artists getting paid for their creativity,
but shit man, if Sony is going to release a disc riffing on
Abbey Hoffmanís counter-cultural touchstone Steal This
Book, I think Iím morally obliged to comply, no? I mean,
if they name a record Steal This Album, arenít
you by law somehow required to do exactly that? Sure, most of
the suburban kids who comprise the target market for said album
will simply pony up mom and dadís cash and then display their
legally purchased consumable item as a mark of subversive authenticity,
but that doesnít mean you have to pose like that, now
Stealing music isnít hard. All you need is a reasonably thick
jacket or coat, non-autistic motor functions, and patience.
There are only two tricky parts to it, really. The first is
the transfer of merchandise from the display case into the interior
lining of your coat. This is where most people are going to
get caught. You need to position your body in such a way as
to block out any nearby surveillance cameras, but you need to
be calm and cool enough to not look like youíre doing that.
The best idea is to wander through other sections, away from
the display rack youíre casing, and mentally map camera wells
from there. If you look straight up into the techno-eye while
standing in front of the merch youíre interested in, youíre
probably going to catch some Wilbur security guardís attention.
That is completely antithetical to what you want to happen.
Once you get the product onto your person, you have to exit
the store. This is the second great pitfall for would-be anti-capitalists.
Those magnetic detectors are pretty damned tricky to get around.
One thing you can try is bag swapping, but this is always dangerous.
The idea is to have a plastic bag, one like the bags the cashiers
give real customers, on your person from the start. When you
make the transfer of product, you work the product into the
bag as well. Then, as youíre walking towards the exit, let the
bag work its way out of your jacket. When you get to those damned
sensors, act like you see a friend in the parking lot and raise
your hand high to wave at them. Done properly, this gets
the non-demagnetized merchandise above the scanner but doesnít
look too terribly sketchy. But, and I cannot stress this enough,
this is a really dangerous way to approach things, and as often
as not, youíre going to get some attention. The kind of attention
that leads to detention or long, lung-ripping sprints.
By far the better method is to simply wait for someone who
has just bought a major appliance to exit. Some legitimate customer
sets the sensors off every ten minutes or so, and if youíre
mostly subtle about waiting on the moment, you can sweep through
while the alarm is going off for that guy.
Of course, the easiest thing to do is to download Kazaa. By
my reckoning, every System of a Down song ever recorded is available,
most of them three or four times, including the entire track
lists from their three major releases.
At this point, assuming youíre not in the windowless back room
of a mega-store being ruthlessly interrogated by the local Barney
Fife until the real cops arrive, your next question becomes
ďWhat the hell to do with a System of a Down CD.Ē I am personally
finding this to be a much more complex question than I had originally
expected. My assumption was that I would take a cursory listen,
yell ďIck! Nu-metal!Ē and that would be it. My experience with
the band prior to this little outing was 30 seconds of a video
as I was flipping past MTV and I just assumed them to be easily
discarded pseudo-subversive pop pap. What I got was a little
The first thing that strikes me is the angular rhythms and
flourishes of math rock. My basic notions of radio rock are
straight-four signatures beat out with little creativity or
syncopation. This is, by and large, what you get on FM airwaves
across the country, from Zeppelin to Aerosmith to Pearl Jam
to Creed. And while straight time isnít necessarily a bad thing
(Thee Michelle Gun Elephant
smash out 4/4 in a brilliantly simple reduction, for example,
and hell, John Bonham could work magic with a 2/2 beat), when
it is combined with the banality of most modern radio rock you
get something akin to gruel without salt. System of a Down doesnít
rely so heavily on un-complicated down beats as I had expected.
There are measures of 5/8, maybe even an 11/12 if I counted
correctly, sprinkled in this thing. That stuns me a bit, in
a good way. I mean, theyíre not going to take on a Purkinje
Shift cover any time soon, but they know their technical chops
regardless. Iím reminded of certain moments from the Archers
of Loaf catalogue, at least with regard to time signatures.
Thatís pretty darned cool.
The next thing that strikes me is the political activism of
the lyrics. This is reminiscent of both good punk rock as well
as Rage Against The Machine style metal. Now granted, System,
much like Rage, have agreed to capitulate and participate fully
within the system they so angrily dismiss, but even as such,
theyíre still at least interesting politically. And while I
canít get the lyrics to Dillinger Fourís New Punk Fashions
for the Spring Formal out of my head (ďItís like the Marketing
department has finally figured out that Ďthe pití can always
make more room/Iíd love to sneer at the camera for your revolution,
but I just canít afford the fucking costumeĒ), I still canít
completely dismiss the rhetoric out of hand either. And again,
that is what I was expecting to do.
Finally, Iím completely enthralled by Serj Tankianís voice.
From what I can gather, heís of Armenian descent, which may
or may not have something to do with it, but when he sings,
you here a lot of different things colliding. Things you wouldnít
normally expect. First, you get the basics of thrash-metal and
punk lyricism. This is probably obvious, but the vocal tracks
on System of a Down songs walk a tightrope between John Lydonís
sneer and Phil Anselmoís sheer lyrical punishment. Innumerable
hardcore screamers have tried to turn this trick before, and
most of them end up in the rubble pile beneath the wire, but
Tankian manages to traverse the terrain intact. That in and
of itself is rather notable. Add to it an element of Mike Patton
circa Epic playfulness combined with a ghost of Geoff
Tate circa Empire and the stakes are raised even
But by far the most interesting thing for me is the near-eastern
elements Tankianís voice recalls when he drives into the higher
registers. Actually these are present in all but the most Pantera
moments of his singing, but theyíre most noticeable when he
jacks up the octave. Because when he ratchets up to the high
tenors for choruses and refrains, Serj Tankian sounds voice
takes on a lilting tremolo that invokes almost bodily the Muslim
call to prayers, that haunting counter-melodic intonation one
hears when the Koran is sung aloud (as must be done to properly
understand itís poetic beauty.) Now, Iím sure this statement
is irreconcilably heretical to most of Islam, but hell, Iím
American, so whatís to lose at this point, right? And maybe
Iíve offended Tankian himself by suggesting that he is more
of a creation of his ancestry than he wants to be. But Iím telling
you, if you listen to this band, youíre going to hear an almost
unthinkable mixture of speed metal, punk rock, and the hypnotic
meta-rhythms of Islamic worship services.
Weird, huh? But so goddamned interesting itís painful.
You know, Iím going to be listening to this band for a while
now. I know theyíre all corporate and insanely popular and all,
so Iím gaining no indie cred at all for it, but shit, this is
just engrossing music. Thereís so much going on here, so much
that I never expected to hear, so many traces to mapÖ
Iím giving Steal This Album six sponges. Yeah,
I really am. And Iím going to go steal their other albums too,
while waiting, surprisingly impatiently, for their next offering.
How very odd.