"We're in Hollywood, right?" guitarist Daron Malakian shouted Monday night at the Hollywood Bowl, early in an explosive hometown concert by System of a Down, as a sold-out crowd of 17,000 roared back. "You speak Armenian in Hollywood, right?"
The 90-minute Bowl set was the only announced U.S. performance set for this year for the eccentric, platinum-selling hard rock act, who reunited in 2011. (The band's next stop is Anapa, Russia on August 7th.) It began with the slow, rumbling build-up of "Aerials," rising from an ominous guitar pattern from Malakian before erupting with the full band and singer Serj Tankian growling and cooing: "When you lose small mind, you free your life!"
There were no new songs, but some selections hadn't been played by the band in a decade or more, including "X" and "Peephole," which veered from dark, threatening tones to the sound of a carnival. More important, the Los Angeles concert showed the band again at full power, delivering 28 songs as sharp and raging as ever.
There were radical shifts in tone and tempo, as Tankian's vocals soared from tender and controlled to a Darth Vader howl and the band balanced ancient folk with metal riffs as tough as Slayer on "Suite-Pee." The singer frequently strummed a guitar or stood behind a keyboard, his hair cropped short, with a touch of gray in his beard.
"B.Y.O.B." ricocheted from sunny to oppressive. "Everybody's going to the party have a real good time/Dancing in the desert, blowing up the sunshine," Tankian sang before the band jumped into a panicked machine gun rhythm, closing with Tankian wagging a finger and shaking his hips. The singer bounced to John Dolmayan's battlefield beats on the enraged "Deer Dance," with the crowd shouting back: "With their fully automatics/They like to push the weak around!"
"Let's have a moment of silence for this next song," said Malakian, who arrived at the Bowl in a black fedora and burgundy velvet jacket. He began plucking the vulnerable intro to "Soldier Side," which swelled into an emotional epic, shifting from raging to wounded. Both he and Tankian sang of their hometown just steps away from the streets described in "Lost in Hollywood," which began with lonely strumming on guitar. Soon the guitarist was urging fans to wave their arms "like you just don't care." The massive landscape of fans stretched all the way back to the trees, with a few Armenian flags of red, blue and gold waving above them.
The playfully lewd "Cigaro" opened with Malakian singing the "My cock is bigger than yours" intro to a delicate guitar melody, dropping in an impromptu lyric: "Can't you see how stupid this song is?"
The night took a more serious tone as the stage lights went down and the Bowl's white shell was filled with spots of light. Tankian asked the crowd to imagine if the U.S. had aligned with Germany in World War II and swept aside all memory of the Jewish Holocaust. He then raged against denial of the Armenian genocide of a century ago and began "Holy Mountains," with the singer's shouts of "Liar! Killer! Demon!"
Then Malakian was alone again at the mic, purring a loving cover of "Angel Baby" (the 1960 teen heartbreak hit from Rosie and the Originals). He dedicated the song to veteran West Coast oldies DJ Art Laboe.
By the end, the band had given no indication about its future plans. System of a Down have never been especially prolific as recording artists, or easily scheduled. Their productivity tends to erupt in tidal waves. Sessions for 2001's Toxicity led not only to that release but Steal This Album, and their next sessions led to the dual release of Mezmerize and Hypnotize in 2005. Fans will have to be patient.
At the close of the set – no encore – the band said their goodbyes, and Dolmayan made a promise: "We'll be back when we have a new fucking album." Then he began hurling sticks deep into the crowd and walked away.