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  Steal This Album  
  System of a Down  
Release Date:
Reviewed by:

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 be Jonah.

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 does it?

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 different, though.

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 further.

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.

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  System of a Down also made Gooner's 2002 Year End List as a "guilty pleasure".  

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