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No one could have guessed that an album as bizarre and abrasive as System of a Down's second full-length, Toxicity, would break the Armenian-American weirdos out of the metal underworld and turn them into global rock stars. Released on September 4th, 2001 — just days before 9/11 — the record actually seemed doomed in the paranoid and repressive climate that set in after the calamitous terrorist attacks. And yet, despite the hurdles, the album found its audience — and a huge one at that.
Simply put, the music was just too good. In particular, the album's three singles, "Chop Suey!," "Aerials" and "Toxicity," proved to be irresistible earworms that spoke to a jilted and jittery generation, driving the album to multi-platinum sales and "all-time classic" status.
Here are five eye-opening facts about Toxicity's title track.
1. Shavo Odadjian brought in the original version of the song, which had a totally different title
While guitarist Daron Malakian and singer Serj Tankian are commonly viewed as System of a Down's main songwriters, it was bassist Shavo Odadjian who brought "Toxicity" to the table. The composition would be heavily reworked once his bandmates got their hands on it — including getting a new title.
"I brought in 'Toxicity,'" Odadjian told The Ringer in 2021. "I called it 'Version 7.0.' At the time, AOL was around, and it was at Version 5.0. I was like, 'When this song comes out, it'll be on Version 7.0, and we'd be telling the future.'"
2. "Toxicity" almost "fell through the cracks" and didn't make the album
Encouraged by producer Rick Rubin to "over-write," System of a Down entered the studio with around 44 songs — many of which wouldn't make the final 15-track LP, some eventually appearing on the 2002 collection of "leftovers," Steal This Album! With so much material to work with, it was inevitable that some gems might get overlooked — and "Toxicity" was nearly such a casualty.
"Of all the songs, 'Toxicity' fell through the cracks," Odadjian recalled. "We didn't work on it. I felt so good about it, and it wasn't taken well. Towards the end of writing material, Daron goes, 'Remember that song, 'Version 7.0'? I kinda did my thing to it, and here it is.' And the dude played 'Toxicity.' He chopped it up and said, 'Drums should go there, and this and this.' All of the sudden, 'Toxicity' was really born. The last song that got submitted was the title track."
3. The iconic beat for "Toxicity" was born of "complete irritation"
Among the song's many signature moments, the propulsive drumming that first kicks "Toxicity" into high gear is one of the most instantly recognizable. The inspiration for the punchy beat came from an unlikely source: intense annoyance.
"I was trying to figure out beats," Dolmayan remembered. "Shavo was right in front of me and wouldn't stop talking. I was like, 'Shavo, give me a second to try and come up with something.' He was like, 'Why don't you try it like this?' He was moving his arms up and down. To mock him, I did what I thought he was doing. That beat came out of complete irritation. It was very much just, 'Get the fuck out of my face. I'm going to do this so you leave.' It ended up being one of the beats I'm most known for."
4. The line "eating seeds is a pastime activity" refers to the common Armenian practice of snacking on sunflower seeds
Another very memorable moments in "Toxicity" is when Tankian sings, "Eating seeds as a pastime activity/The toxicity of our city, of our city." For many listeners, the lyric seems positively bizarre, but not so to fans who share the band members' Armenian heritage.
Interviewed by Metal Injection, Malakian explained: "My family gets [sunflower seeds] raw — and a lot of Armenians do this — they buy the sunflower seeds raw and they cook them. They roast them."
As it turns out, eating seeds is indeed "a pastime activity" for him. "It's delicious," the guitarist continued. "It's way better than anything you can buy at the convenience store. It's fresh and they're warm. They're amazing. You can't stop eating them."
5. Daron Malakian steered SOAD in the more melodic and anthemic direction of "Toxicity"
While Rubin produced the album on a macro level, it was Malakian who took the reins when it came to the nitty-gritty of the songwriting. "Daron took on that role of guiding things through, and you need that in a band," Odadjian said. "Daron is way more critical than Rick."
Bringing his fault-finding eye to the mountains of material the band was working with, the guitarist had a particular direction in mind for SOAD, one that took their sound beyond their metallic roots. "I liked songs like 'Aerials,' 'Toxicity' and 'ATWA' that brought an evolution to our sound," Malakian explained. "It wasn't just about trying to start mosh pits anymore. I was writing open songs with big choruses.
6. Malakian and John Dolmayan came to blows in the studio — a bloody brawl that helped galvanize the band to finish "Toxicity"
Malakian and Dolmayan were so passionate about their music and ideas that they frequently argued. Sometimes those conflicts became physical. "There were times when we fuckin' threw down," the SOAD drummer said. "[Once], John and I were totally going at it. My lip was all cut up, and I took a microphone stand and hit him across the head and his head was all bashed in. Shavo and Serj were looking at us saying, 'Awww, man, we're done.' But right after we fought, we took each other to the hospital and got stitched up right next to each other. Both of us were sitting there laughing, saying, 'This is one of the coolest moments in the history of our band.'"
Dolmayan added, looking back: "Maybe [the fight] was positive for us because the week after hospitalization, we went in, and 'Chop Suey!' and 'Toxicity' were completed."