System of a Down's second album comes after three years of expectation and a whirlwind of media attention. And while it takes some warming up to, in the end, it's well-composed, aggressive, and unique: meaty metal with a social conscience. Those who heard the band's 1998 self-titled debut will be familiar with System's quirky song structures and singer-guitarist Serj Tankian's habit of screaming right along with a guitar riff. Tankian's in-your-face politics and unironic calls to revolution are sometimes overbearing, and his vocals are seldom accessible enough to make his heavy-handed dogma palatable. His lyrics read like wearying prose, with regard for neither rhythm nor, in many cases, meaning. References to Charles Manson ("ATWA") and drug addiction ("Psycho") make little sense.
Still, System of a Down -- the band also includes singer-guitarist Daron Malakian, bassist Shavo Odadjian, and drummer John Dolmayan -- has a signature style. While informed by metal, Toxicity has an Eastern rhythmic structure that pervades the album. The band, which is of Armenian descent but based in Los Angeles, actually recorded 33 songs in only nine weeks, with the guidance of producer Rick Rubin (Beastie Boys, Slayer). Andy Wallace (Rage Against the Machine, Limp Bizkit) mixed 17 of those, 14 of which made it onto the album. Yet Toxicity doesn't sound rushed. Although the awkward time signatures keep the listener off balance, the musical performances here are superb, with crunchy guitars and off-kilter timing resonating more than most other rap-metal acts to which the group is compared.