“We are not an Armenian band, we are not a heavy metal band, and we aren’t nu-metal,” guitarist-singer Daron Malakian clarified to alma mater Glendale High School in 2003. “We are System of a Down. … We are what rock music has evolved into.”
Of course, those attributes are an integral part of their history and creativity (they were even told early on that they were unmarketable because of their ancestry). Yet, every album they’ve done has demonstrated a remarkable refusal to be pigeonholed by specific genres and topics.
Naturally, their self-titled debut LP — co-produced by industry legend Rick Rubin and released on June 30th, 1998 —firmly established their unique artistry. With its wide range of styles (thrash metal, hardcore, funk, Middle Eastern, jazz, noise rock, hip-hop, punk) and subject matter (genocide, religious extremism, self-harm, predacious media, mind control, drug abuse), it showcased a startlingly inventive and motivated ensemble who bowed down to no one.
The road to the album’s release took a few winding turns along the way. For starters, the group arose from the ashes of Soil, an early ‘90s California quintet that included future SOAD bandmates Malakian, Serj Tankian, and Shavo Odadijan (who started out as their manager). Following Soil’s disbandment, the three aforementioned members decided to start a new band under a new name: Victims of a Down (titled after one of Malakian’s poems).
Before long, though, they swapped “Victims” to “System” because – as Tankian once explained – it was “a better, stronger word.” Additionally, according to Malakian, it allowed them to be alphabetized in record shops alongside one of their biggest influences: Slayer. (In fact, Malakian described their music as “Slayer and the Beatles [having] a baby.”)
Throw in a few more diverse inspirations – such as Ravi Shankar, David Bowie, Alien Sex Fiend, The Who, Bad Brains, and Black Sabbath – and you have their first four demo tapes (which they shopped around to labels during the mid-90s). Logically, they were also playing local shows in California, and by 1997, they’d caught Rubin’s attention and cemented their lineup by replacing drummer Ontronik “Andy” Khachaturian with John Dolmayan.