"We're about to put out our fourth record and our fifth one, but the fifth will be part of our fourth one," System of a Down guitarist Daron Malakian told Revolver in the spring of 2005. "It's all fucked up, which is the only way I'd have it," he laughed. "There doesn't need to be no rules and explanations to this shit! It's two records, a double album, call it what you want — just listen to it!"
Never known for doing things in an easy or predictable way, the Los Angeles–based quartet released not one but two new albums in 2005: Mezmerize, which dropped on May 17th, and Hypnotize, which followed on November 22th. Drawn from recording sessions that had begun in June 2004 and continued for much of the year, the two albums were artfully sequenced by Malakian to work together as two halves of a single opus — though their staggered release dates made it easier for listeners to fully absorb the music contained in each single CD.
Which was actually a good idea, because Mezmerize/Hypnotize contained the band's most head-spinning material yet. On Mezmerize alone, songs like "B.Y.O.B (Bring Your Own Bombs)," "Question," "Radio/Video," "Lost in Hollywood" and the memorably titled "This Cocaine Makes Me Feel Like I'm on This Song" were — even by SOAD standards — crammed to the hilt like sonic clown cars with a crazy array of hooks, influences and unexpected left turns. But the band's heart and humor remained audibly intact amid the musical onslaught, with lyrics inspired by everything from the Iraq War ("B.Y.O.B.") to the depressing spectacle of old C-list actors still coasting on their celebrity ("Old School Hollywood Baseball"). "I see us as a socially-conscious band, not just a political band," Malakian told Revolver. "The guy sitting in his car waiting for his girl, with the world going on around him — it comes down to that. That's what System of a Down means to me."
Splitting the album into two separately-released pieces was also a smart move from a commercial standpoint. While double albums have traditionally been a tough sell, both Mezmerize and Hypnotize debuted at No. 1 upon their release, making System of a Down only the fifth act — after the Beatles, Guns N' Roses, 2Pac and DMX — to have two studio albums debut atop the Billboard 200 in the same year. Both albums also went platinum, selling over a million copies each in the U.S. alone.
And, sadly, despite occasional rumors of new SOAD studio activity, Mezmerize and Hypnotize remain the last music released by the band. But over a decade after their initial release, the albums (or is it album?) still sound fresh and vital. Here are six things you might not know about Mezmerize — and its Hypnotize-ing counterpart.
1. The music of Mezmerize and Hypnotize was influenced by everything from black metal to Motown.
"I listen to a lot of shit, all the time," Malakian told Revolver, "including a lot of Sixties pop that I've been listening to in the past few years, which has been kind of bleeding through my writing, without losing touch with a lot of the other things that make up System of a Down."
Malakian went on to list black metal–era Darkthrone, British rockers the Kinks and various Motown girl groups as primary influences, while cautioning that "you can't put your finger on the Darkthrone influence and say, 'There's Darkthrone,' and you can't put your finger on the Kinks and say, 'There's the Kinks!' But you can see all that kind of happening somewhere. Like, if I pointed out the chorus for 'Kill Rock n' Roll' — that melody line is very old Motown. I didn't know that when I was writing it, but after time went on I was like, 'Wow, that's old Motown!' Because I'd been listening to the Supremes, the Marvelettes, and stuff like that."
2. Daron Malakian wrote a greater percentage of the lyrics — and sang a greater percentage of lead vocals — for Mezmerize/Hypnotize than on any previous SOAD album
On 2001's Toxicity and 2002's Steal This Album!, Daron Malakian had written most of the music, while Serj Tankian had handled the bulk of the lyrics and lead vocals. But on Mezmerize and Hypnotize saw Malakian taking significantly more lead vocals than he had in the past, which led some fans and critics to accuse him of staging a coup to displace vocalist Serj Tankian. Tankian didn't see it that way, however.
"Well, Daron is singing more, and that's good," Tankian told Revolver. "And he's written more lyrics than before, which is quite different, because he's always written most of the music. But that's the main difference. But I brought in more music than before. It's important to me, after 10 years, for people to recognize our talents above and beyond what they imagined we did. Daron's been my friend since before we formed System of a Down, and I want people to know that he's got an amazing voice, and that he also writes really potent, cutting lyrics. Just like it's important for me that people recognize that I do more than just sing — that I play piano and guitar, and that I write songs as well. ["Question!" and "Vision of Obscenity" were largely Tankian's.] That's more important to me in terms of the growth of the band — that people recognize that we do other things, and that those other things have contributed to making this record different than the previous System records."
3. Mezmerize/Hypnotize could have easily been a triple album
The period between Steal This Album! and the beginning of the Mezmerize/Hypnotize sessions proved exceptionally prolific for Malakian's songwriting, so he had a wealth of material at the ready by June 2004, when the band entered Rick Rubin's studios at The Mansion to begin recording.
"Oh, it could have been a triple album," he told us. "Because before that, I edited out a lot of songs here [at my house], before I even brought them to the band. So if I was the type of person to take in everything that I write, then we would be fucked!"
Even so, there was such a surplus of quality songs that culling them proved to be a daunting task. "When we recorded the songs [in pre-production], and heard them back for the first time without having to play them. It just felt like there was a lot of material there that deserved to be on the album," Malakian recalled. "There were a few that we didn't even bother recording, and then there's some that went into recording, went into the mix, but aren't going to make the album. We've taken out a lot of songs, and we still have all of this. Personally, I would rather not put out a double album, but I didn't want some really good songs to get sidelined."
4. The album was carved into two distinct halves due to the iPod generation's diminished attention
"It's not a very 'rock star' move to put the two halves out separately," Malakian told Revolver at the time. "I think a rock star move would have been going, 'Here's two records, and I know you motherfuckers are going to listen to all of this shit!' The way I'm looking at it is, 'Here's two records put out at different times, because I know you motherfuckers aren't going to listen to all of this shit!' People will listen to your record more if there is less to take in. A lot of people don't have the time to sit there and listen to an hour's worth of new music. I don't have that sort of ego to think that people are going to sit there and listen to all of these songs in a row, as much as I would like them to!"
Tankian agreed. "I remember one day sitting down and listening to 30 songs in a row in the studio with Rick," he said, "and I was done — I was exhausted. I couldn't listen to another song, and I kept on thinking, 'I can't imagine someone having to go through this!' Our songs are pretty progressive and all over the place and high-energy and all that; and with people's short attention spans, it's like you definitely have to focus on the songs, enjoy them, and get another one a bit later. We didn't want to do them too far apart, because we want people to realize that it's ultimately one record."
5. The band had a "bass intervention" with Shavo Odadjian during the recording sessions
Though it wasn't widely publicized at the time, Malakian wound up handling much of the bass duties for Mezmerize/Hypnotize, because he felt that Shavo Odadjian's bass playing had slipped in the time since the band recorded Steal This Album! Odadjian, who had grown up playing guitar and hadn't picked up a bass until he was almost old enough to legally drink, told Revolver that his bandmates ultimately called him out during the sessions because of his sub-par playing.
"They were like, 'Dude, you're a bass player who plays better guitar than bass. What the hell is wrong with you?'" Odadjian laughed. "Daron would say to me, 'Practice your bass! Practice your bass every day!' But I was looking at practice like work, like schoolwork. I would come home every day after practicing with the band, and play guitar for hours. I was 'good enough' on bass, so why should I have to practice it at home? But then I realized, I strive to be the best at everything else I do — why haven't I applied that to this thing, which is supposed to be my life?"
"Daron had written a lot of crazy things [for Mezmerize/Hypnotize] that you'd need to practice before you play them, especially to put those tracks on a record," he continued, explaining why Daron ultimately played most of the bass parts. "After we were all done, I came home, and all I did was practice. Before, I was like, 'I know how to play the bass!' But I forgot why I loved my instrument so much; it was like it became a job. But if you really practice at it, you get better so fast, and I'm so back into it now. Now, when I think of playing an instrument, I grab the bass instead of the guitar."
6. "Old School Hollywood Baseball" was inspired by Daron Malakian's participation in a celebrity ballgame at Dodger Stadium
One of the more unusual tracks on Mezmerize, the synthesizer-driven "Old School Hollywood Baseball" came from an equally odd experience Malakian had at Dodger Stadium in 2003, when he played in the Los Angeles Dodgers' annual Hollywood Stars exhibition game. A lifelong Dodger fan, Malakian was initially stoked to be invited to participate, but he was ultimately creeped out by the egocentric "stars" he played with.
"That was a day I spent playing baseball with Tony Danza and Frankie Avalon, who are mentioned in the song," he explained to Revolver. "I came home, and I was so shocked by the situation I was just in … it was surreal, but it was a dream that wasn't a happy dream. It was kind of dark." He laughed. "I wouldn't say it was a nightmare, but it was weird. I came home, took a shower, and eventually picked up a guitar, and that song came out of me. I didn't even know that it was going to come out. It's a cool track. I think it's a really different thing for System, musically."