PHOENIX — For a band as dynamic as System of a Down, one would expect their live performances to be equally, if not more engaging, than their studio releases. Gaining popularity from classic songs like Chop Suey for example, which features a quickly strummed acoustic guitar intro leading directly into a frenetic musical meltdown. This is arguably one of the defining attributes of the band and last night’s show at Talking Stick Resort Arena in downtown Phoenix was certainly no exception.
El Paso rock band, At The Drive In, set the tone of the night with energetic grooves and polished musicianship; a nice preview of what was to come later on. Their set wasn’t without its technical hiccups however, as lead vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala wildly gyrated his arms in an upward motion towards stage left during the first song. This was a clear indication that his vocals weren’t loud enough in the mix and he most likely couldn’t hear himself. The band didn’t miss a beat and continued on into the next few songs, but not without Bixler-Zavala interrupting himself mid-lyric to say “turn up the vocals!” He was obviously frustrated with the technical side of things, but this didn’t take away from their overall performance. With Bixler-Zavala and the rest of the band continuously powered through and made sure the people got what they came to see. Roaring reception from the crowd and an ever turbulent ocean of bodies in the open floor area indicated they were delivering on that promise for many fans.
Following Cedric’s politically charged closing announcement after the final song, that the band was “going backstage to hang out. Don’t call ICE on us,” there was a quick tear-down period as various stage hands took their gear away and made room for the main attraction. Soon after, the lights darkened and System of a Down broke into “Innervision”, a song I didn’t expect as an opening number but a great decision nonetheless. This song has a slow-burning intensity that served as an excellent preamble for what was about to hit the audience next.
Immediately after “Innervision”, lead guitarist, Daron Malakian hit the immensely-heavy opening power chord to “Prison Song”. As if this song alone wasn’t enough of a reason to get the crowd filled with excitement, the band faked everyone out by hitting the opening chord a few more times than expected which stirred up the suspense and generated added fervor.
It’s worth noting that by the time System of a Down took the stage, the sound was immediately dialed in and they sounded absolutely perfect. Every single instrument was balanced well with one another, and both Serj Tankian and Malakian’s vocals had achieved just the right volume levels to allow their harmonious vocals to soar and blend in beautiful ways.
From this point on, each song flowed smoothly into the next with virtually no time in between, allowing them to pack as many songs into the night as possible. The third song played was “I-E-A-I-A-I-O”, which was followed by yet another acronymic song “B.Y.O.B.” Behind the band was a giant jumbotron displaying many visually arresting images including bombs exploding, girls dancing in chorus lines, and inflamed cars driving down the highway at light speeds.
Bassist Shavo Odadjian and drummer John Dolmayan held down the rhythm section with machine-like musical precision while still remaining animated on stage and engaging with the crowd when necessary. Odadjian particularly stole the show at many points during the set with his excellent bass tone cutting through the mix and his charismatic dance moves.
Odadjian was not the only one who visibly enjoyed himself on stage either. Both Tankian and Malakian employed their own dance routines of hopping around on one foot and spinning around in circles. This struck me as particularly impressive when you consider how fast and technical each of their roles in most of the songs are. Malakian also had me laughing at multiple points during the show when he chose to introduce the song “Psycho #13” by singing his own rendition of “Physical” by Olivia Newton-John. He had a lot of excellent banter with the audience during other songs too, like chanting the words “everybody spin around” to the tune of the outro guitar riff in “Toxicity”. This gave way to a maelstrom of people swirling around in one of the biggest mosh pits I’ve ever witnessed. The power that the band and their songs have over their fans is undeniable and an incredible thing to witness in person.
Other notable highlights of the night were “Aerials”, “Question!”, “Deer Dance”, and especially the closing song “Sugar”; an excellent choice to cap off the night and a highly memorable setlist. System of a Down have proved once again that despite a 24-year music career, their enthusiasm has yet to wane. Over 10 years after the band’s last double album release Mezmerize/Hypnotize, they have teased new music with various contradictory information coming from different band members over time. However, one thing I certainly take comfort in is that regardless of whether or not we ever get to experience new music from the band, they’ve left a lasting musical legacy that has left an indelible impression on me, as well as many other fans from around the world.