Seven years after their last album, System of a Down still sound like mainstream metal's last stand. They're still the newest cutting edge metal act whose CDs could be sold at Target, the most modern metal band to write a tolerable song that your sister knows the words to. At Jones Beach Theater last Sunday, they gave no indication that they'll be releasing new music, even if that may be exactly what underground metal needs right now. System's ability to be avant-garde and popular was reflected in the line outside the venue, where Wiz Khalifa and Daniel Johnston t-shirts met.
Headbangers will always need our System of a Downs. Gripe all you want about it not being kvlt enough for you, but you never would have discovered grindcore if you hadn't heard Pantera, and there is an abundance of exciting underground metal bands with no modern gateway artist. Either System have to make new music, or Pig Destroyer is going to have to start writing choruses.
Openers the Deftones tore into "Rocket Skates" moments before the sky turned black and released a torrential storm on the band and attendees. Undeterred, either by their own professionalism, the crowd's energy or the fact that their biggest foe was still the Jones Beach acoustics, they boosted a standard "Best of the Deftones" setlist by employing the weather into their show. "This is some Michael Jackson shit happening, without (mechanical) fans," commented singer Chino Moreno, while the winds and downpour gave songs like "Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away)" a grandeur that they never could have found in the Deftones' usual club setting.
System of a Down opened with "Prison Song," an anti-incarceration anthem that alternates between singer Serj Tankian's barked statistics and guitarist Daron Malakian's squeaked imitation of a crack-smoking Hollywood dwelling. It was a reminder of how the band originally stood out, by blending goofy irreverence and dour politics somehow never undermined each other (most System-y shirt: an armored vehicle with an erected tank gun that read "MINE IS BIGGER THAN YOURS.") Like Malakian's hero, Frank Zappa, System's songs danced between cheery melodies ("Bounce," "Cigaro,") and guitar spazz outs ("Suite-Pee," "Sugar,") often in the same composition ("Chop Suey," "B.Y.O.B.") If anything, the band's sense of humor gave their politics more weight than the self-serious riot acts of Rage Against the Machine and Lamb of God.
But like Rage, System of a Down showed last Sunday that they are best as a unit. Tankain's solo records or Malakian's Scars on Broadway have been struggling to come up with anything as instant as "Needles" or at wrenching as "Hypnotize" ever since System of a Down announced their hiatus in 2006. By last Sunday's show, they've still "got it," and if SOAD never records again as a band, it would the metal community's loss.