“I hope you like System of a Down,” the band’s guitarist and vocalist Daron Malakian teased Monday night’s crowd at the L.A. Forum, during a break about a third of the way into a massive set. “Because we’ve got a lot of it for you tonight!”
Malakian wasn’t kidding. The only U.S. show of the band’s international Wake Up the Souls tour featured a whopping 33 System of a Down songs crammed into an expertly-paced two-hour performance that spanned all five of the band’s studio albums (and two covers). The band’s most indelible songs (“Aerials,” “Hypnotize,” “Lonely Day,” “Chop Suey!”, “B.Y.O.B.”) rubbed shoulders with rarely performed numbers like “U-Fig” (from 2005’s Hypnotize) and “Chic ‘N’ Stu” (from 2002’s Steal This Album!) in what was less a “greatest hits” set than a reaffirmation of the singular sound and vision that made them one of the most popular hard rock bands of the early 2000s.
If anything, System of a Down sounded even better on Monday night than they did a decade ago, back when they were still making records. Malakian, vocalist/keyboardist Serj Tankian, bassist Shavo Odadjian and drummer John Dolmayan have not only become even more proficient on their respective instruments over the years, but their maturity and confidence was apparent on complex songs like “Psycho” and “Mr. Jack,” wherein musical passages that could be sometimes overrun by angst and adrenaline were allowed to breathe and shimmer.
The band’s seasoned playing also brought the rage and sorrow at the heart of so many of their songs to the fore. And, indeed, this evening wasn’t just about stirring up mosh pits on the Forum floor (though that was certainly accomplished). The Wake Up the Souls tour was designed by the band to commemorate (and raise further awareness of) the Armenian Genocide, which took place 100 years ago this month. The eight-date trek, which also includes stops in London, Amsterdam and Moscow, will conclude on April 23 with a concert in Armenia — the first-ever for the band, whose members are all of Armenian descent.
As presumably with the other shows on this tour, the concert on Monday was punctuated by the screening of three short videos — one at the beginning of the show, one at about the halfway mark and one towards the end — that combined animation and archival film clips to educate the audience on the reality and ramifications of the Armenian Genocide. Narrated by Tom Morello (who was also in the audience), the clips described the Ottoman Empire’s attempted extermination of the Armenian people, while drawing a direct link from that atrocity — “the blueprint for modern mass murder,” as Morello put it in one of the clips — to subsequent genocides in Nazi-controlled Europe, Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur. Also mentioned: The contemporary Turkish government’s refusal to recognize the Armenian genocide, the complicity of the United States government and the need to stand up on behalf of people who are threatened by similar slaughters.
Though powerful, the message of the clips seemed to get lost amid the tumult of the arena; though there were scattered cries of “Fuck Turkey!” from the crowd, many of those in attendance seemed to regard the screening of the second and third clips as opportunities to check their phones, grab beers or visit the restroom. But they paid rapt attention when, towards the end of the evening, Tankian grabbed the microphone and humbly thanked everyone for coming.
“There is no true genocide prevention,” he explained, referring to the current lack of any binding international agreements that would guard against future massacres. “The only thing that can prevent it is us.” The crowd cheered, the band plunged into a moving rendition of “Toxicity,” and — for that moment, at least — it seemed like the evening’s most important message had finally hit home.