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Emerson, Lake, and Pummel

System of a Down, the Mars Volta, 1st Mariner Arena, Aug. 22

Jefferson Jackson Steele

By Al Shipley | Posted 8/31/2005

Last week, the tattooed and black-clad youth of Baltimore descended on 1st Mariner Arena to see a double bill of two of the oddest, proggiest bands currently able to fill an arena. System of a Down’s North American tour is scheduled squarely between the release of two simultaneously recorded new albums: Mezmerize, which debuted at the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200 chart in May, and Hypnotize, due in November. System brought along the Mars Volta to warm up the crowd.

The Mars Volta’s set lasted a full hour but, like its 2005 second album, Frances the Mute, consisted of roughly five songs. Frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala yelped and squeaked bilingual lyrics and belted out a feminine wail worthy of Heart’s Nancy Wilson on the single “The Widow.” The band’s eight-piece touring lineup features auxiliary percussion and woodwinds, and though System fans may have been less receptive to the flute solos, when the Mars Volta picked up the tempo and kept it loud, all was well.

In contrast to the Mars Volta’s epic multipart suites, System of a Down stuffed nearly 30 individual songs into a 90-minute set with no encore. Drawing mostly from its three available albums, System put an emphasis on 2001’s multiplatinum Toxicity, playing no less than 11 of its songs, as well as most of Mezmerize. It did squeeze in one promising preview of Hypnotize, however, called “Kill Rock’n’Roll.”

System lead singer Serj Tankian is blessed with the kind of voice fit for either a cartoon villain or a rock god. Onstage, though, he’s a particularly geeky rock god who tucks his shirt into his jeans and plays goofy air guitar during instrumental sections. But whether standing still or pacing around the stage, Tankian roared politically charged lyrics and oddball non sequiturs like “don’t eat the fish” with equal conviction.

Guitarist Daron Malakian, meanwhile, competed with the long floppy ponytail hanging from bassist Shavo Odadjian’s chin for most animated member of the band. Malakian, who took a larger role in singing and writing lyrics on System’s two new albums, was literally in the spotlight for much of the show, talkative between songs, posing and playing to the crowd during them. He also performed brief covers of Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My” and Dire Straits’ “The Sultans of Swing,” cheekily changing a line in the chorus of the latter to “we are the System of a Down.”

System of a Down is good at playing to the rafters and filling the room with its racket, even if an arena’s high ceilings and booming acoustics sacrifice the steely precision of System’s Rick Rubin-produced studio albums. Fans tried in vain to sing along to the spastic cadences of Tankian’s vocals on hits such as “Sugar” and “B.Y.O.B.”; they had better luck keeping up with lighter-waving, midtempo songs such as “Aerials” and “Lost in Hollywood.” At the end of the night, you could almost measure customer satisfaction by counting the sweaty, half-naked audience members who emerged from the mosh pit stripped of those black T-shirts.

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