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True to Form
By John Brodeur

System of a Down

Mezmerize (American/Columbia)

After the fourth or fifth time listening through Mezmerize, System of a Down’s remarkable fourth album (third proper), it occurred to me that the band was, to some extent, playing it safe. Maybe the songs had finally settled in after so many spins, but it’s not like they’d lost any of their impact; it’s just that the band hasn’t really broken form in any way. The album supposedly represents the band at its most assured and strange; plus it’s the first half of what would have been (and will become, with the release of Hypnotize this fall) a double album. But the band got plenty weird on their last two releases (Toxicity and Steal This Album!), which were more or less counterparts, despite the band’s protestations to them being characterized as such.

So what’s to recommend Mezmerize over any of the other System of a Down releases? For starters, the audacious first single and (following a short intro) album opener, “B.Y.O.B.” The time-changingest hit song in recent memory is also one of the most perfect hard-rock tunes ever distilled into four-and-a- quarter minutes. It’s a blastbeat-driven siren call, a desert death march and a really fucked-up funk tune all at once.

And the album doesn’t sag a bit. Mezmerize bangs through 11 tracks in 36 minutes, leaving no room for thumb-twiddling. Throughout, you can hear the band renewing, refining and updating their trademark schizo sound. “Revenga” is a more sinister “Chop Suey!” with its rapid-fire vocal breaks, syncopated choruses and the requisite breakdown and rebuild to set up the final stretch. On “Radio/Video,” the band moves from a scream to a whisper and back, then expertly decrescendos into a reggae break. “Question” interpolates a 5/4 stomp with a flamenco-style acoustic guitar passage, then drops one of the album’s many majestic choruses. The jerkiness is perfectly natural for them; the frequent time- and style-changes seem to come from a disinterest in letting listeners get too comfortable.

And there’s a message, too, or so they say. The group’s politics have been front-and-center in the past (lead man Serj Tankian is one of the co-founders of Axis of Justice, a nonprofit social-issues collective), but on Mezmerize, they’ve role-played them into songs like the stop-and-start “Cigaro,” on which the gauntlet (“My cock is much bigger than yours”) is thrown down over over a taut, Slayeresque riff. An anti- television message (sort of) in “Violent Pornography” hides behind a playfully repetitious verse that employs the age-old rhyme of “fuck” and “suck.” Only “B.Y.O.B.” makes its issue clear (“Why don’t presidents fight the war / why do they always send the poor?”).

But the lyrics aren’t the point here, even if the group would like for them to be. Hell, “Old School Hollywood” is about bumping into aging celebrities at a Dodgers game, so, you know, politics shmolitics. What matters is execution, and these gentlemen have become masters of their craft. Here, they’ve gotten the seemingly minor production touches (the buried piano in the final verse of “This Cocaine Makes Me Feel Like I’m On This Song,” for instance) down to a vital science, thanks in large part to producer/dark overlord Rick Rubin. And when Damon Malakian’s shrill voice meshes with Tankian’s charismatic howl, the band imitating the sound of a 15-ambulance pileup, System is on par with Angel Dust-era Faith No More as the most inventive hard-rock group of their day.

But don’t call Mezmerize different, because it’s not—at least not for System of a Down. It’s just a darn good record from a darn good band.

Meredith Bragg & the Terminals

Vol. 1 (Kora Records)

Meredith Bragg & the Terminals play pop music that has a folkish bearing, but is decidedly not folk music. There’s a subtle intricacy and orchestral sensibility that is at the core of Bragg’s 11 songs. Acoustic-based, the music has a quiet insistency, made all the more compelling by the luscious timbres of the instruments employed: acoustic guitar, cello, keyboards and gentle percussives. Clocking in at 37 minutes, a time which is short by CD-saturation standards, but which is just right for the emotionally direct circumstances put forth in the songs. The centerpiece is the set’s longest number, the seven-and-a-half minute “I Won’t Let You Down.” Moving at a stately pace, it picks up momentum without picking up speed, as the urgency of the lyric’s promise is matched by the swirling arrangement of the quartet. In particular, the cello offers a potent and mournful counterpoint voice to Bragg’s unaffected everyman vocals.

The beautiful letterpress package mirrors the pre-technological era resonance of the music within. Recording, manufacturing and playing the compact disc would not be possible without electricity, but this is the sound of a living room sparkling with a chamber ensemble warmed by the embers of a winter stove. Bragg and his cohorts sound contemporary, at the same time eschewing the trappings of modernist dictates, going for the timelessness of human scale, rhythms and emotions.

—David Greenberger

Three Black Hats

Three Black Hats (Self-Released)

Tom Howard, best known for his spastic tenure in Trauma School Dropouts and Nogoodnix, re-emerges here with this intriguing self-titled affair. Ever eccentric, one thick eyebrow raised, Howard’s voice is that of a Danzig without the white-nippled, performance-enhanced bravado. I hate to compare his voice to the man, but that early Static Age croon is certainly in the same ballpark. Recorded practically live (presumably) at Scarlet East, this is a fine debut with some excellent songwriting. The guitars seem intentionally understated, allowing the malt to drip from Howard’s voice, a vagabond’s brave closing-time hymn rising above a concrete backbeat.

High-water marks on my crab-encrusted sea wall go to “The Zube,” “My Ill” and the dastardly rendered “Head in the Oven.” Then there’s a curious flip side to the gnarled lip, the punk-ass ashcan vis a vis “Dance,” “Tribal” and “No Win Situation,” each reminiscent of pre-synth ’80s rock from the UK, bringing to mind a gutter-stained Modern English or Bow Wow Wow (without a naked, underage Rangoon-born girl) on some sort of quite fine ride. I keep waiting for a punchline but TBH plays it fairly straight, sort of like Paul Young on Desperate Housewives (OK, I watch it, shut up) only these guys are killers of a different color. Or the abscess thereof.

—Bill Ketzer

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