System of a Down, The Eighties MatchBox B-Line Disaster

Tim Miller 03/06/2005

Despite the doors not opening for another half an hour, the massive queue snakes round the Brixton Academy, past the first block of flats, past the second, and round a corner into a road which, should you walk about 200 yards further, brings you back to Brixton entrance again. The queue looks, worryingly for a band that is so different to the norm, like a standard nu-metal queue: black clothes and long hair, and with a wealth of sharp points of metal sticking out from various bodily regions. I cast a cautious eye over the posters to make sure HIM have not replaced System at the last minute.

At 8pm on come The Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster, to a fair but hardly wild reception. After three loud, largely indecipherable screamo songs, the frontman with hair longer than his band's name gestures at the crowd asking for more enthusiasm, and then digs his own grave by exaggerating a large yawn. The trouble is, just about everyone is here to see System of a Down, and are thus indifferent to the support band of the night; it could have been Avril Lavigne and the shows would have sold out. The yawn pretty much sums up the crowd's opinion; the feeling was more than mutual. TEMB-LD's best moment comes in a more progressive song with the strange chorus line “What shall we do with the puppy dog's tail?”, a genuinely good song and the highpoint of the set. They leave the stage after a little more than half an hour, the crowd raising itself for generous farewell applause and cheers. Undoubtedly though, this is because seeing the backs of The Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster means that System of a Down are next.

However, at 9pm there is no dramatic lights out, and the music over the tannoy speakers continues quietly. After one song finishes, the crowd swells, whistling, clapping and chanting, until another song begins almost apologetically in the background. Four times this happens, until about 9:20pm, when the discontent in the crowd manufactures itself into boos. As every song ends, the cheers and chants start and the atmosphere is tight with anticipation. Yet again and again, a new song begins over the loudspeakers and by 9:40 (this is getting ridiculous now) the boos are long, loud and meaningful. The crowd is NOT impressed.
Mutiny, though, is not an option and finally at 9:45pm, as discussion turns from the last train home to the earliest train the next morning, the lights are cut and the hundreds of bodies push forward with a roar of excited expectation. Daron Malakian's shadow is silhouetted from behind the backdrop (bearing the new album Mesmerize's cover design), and Soldier Side, the solo intro to said album, begins. On the CD, this intro segues into BYOB, System of a Down's explosive latest single, and you can feel the crowd wondering if that's going to happen here. Magically, it does. System may be 45 minutes late coming onstage, but they're forgiven in an instant as the opening riff to BYOB kicks in. The anticipation that has been building up for so long bursts from the centre of everyone as Malakian screams “WHY DO THEY ALWAYS SEND THE POOR!” and an orgy of breathless bodies rushes forward, squashing and writhing as BYOB continues. “Hello London!” says Serj Tankian, the warm-hearted, grandfather-like figure of a frontman, and though there's no reply, telepathically the wavelength sends back the message 'Hello System: it's great to have you back'.
Tonight's SOAD set starts as Mesmerise does - Intro into BYOB followed by Revenga. System are one of the tightest live bands going, and the new songs sound as good live as they do arduously produced in the studio. Following the opening fire of new material is a past master from Toxicity, Science, and this further sends the wild crowd into hyperactive moshing. The energy in the songs is returned by the sheer energy of the delighted audience, who bounce up, down, getting pummelled and pummelling each other as though out of polite gig etiquette.

The band seem to really enjoy playing to hundreds of adoring fans, rioting in front of them like peasants before royalty. Malakian is on supreme form with his riffs and vocals, somehow making more noise with his one guitar than other bands do with three. Bassist Shavo Odadjian is all smiles, removing his shirt in no time to play, as is his custom, bare-chested. John Dolmayan, as he sounds on record, is phenomenal behind the drumkit, driving the band forward with powerful and simply breathtaking drumming. And Serj Tankian, at the front, calmly supervises his baying subjects, and exudes the air of one in complete control of the madness he is part of creating. He seems so relaxed, and the content smile never disappears from his face despite being called upon to screech, scream, whisper, whimper and gloriously sing the lyrics that are as vital to System's output as their innovative brand of mental-metal.

What is surprising about this gig, as it is essentially the Mesmerize tour, is how little System of a Down plug their new creation. After beginning the set with the opening three tracks of Mesmerize, System visit the new songs only three more times: Serj dons an acoustic guitar for the unfathomable time signatures of Question!, Daron croons his super-weepy ballad Lost in Hollywood, and the so brilliant, so System of a Down single Cigaro is belted out in due course. One unidentified track, presumably to come from Hypnotise later this year, is also played. Lost in Hollywood features in the toned down section of the set, where itself, Aerials, Roulette (one of only two songs from Steal this Album!) and Spiders restore some calm to the proceedings.
Old favourites are received like the anthems they are, and they make up a large part of the setlist: a wealth of classics from Toxicity including its title track, mega hit Chop Suey, brutal stop/start opener Prison Song, the unstable Psycho, the pogo stick madness of Bounce, as well as Forest, Atwa, Deer Dance and Needles. In fact, all in all, only 3 songs from Toxicity are missing, and System of a Down, so uncaringly risky with their music, stick to the masterpieces that have already made them into the sell-out-touring band they are today. The highlights of their self-titled debut album go down well too; the fantastic War?, the barmy Suggestions and fierce album-opening Suite-Pee all pass before, surprisingly again, the most memorable track from their debut, Sugar, closes the set.

System of a Down have played for an hour and a half, though it's felt like 5 minutes. There's no encore, something which is in any case not expected from System gigs, but though the lights go up and the stewards start shouting at people to vacate, there is a reluctance to leave the hallowed Brixton floor. Like eating McDonalds, 10 minutes after seeing System of a Down you want to see them again, even if it means having to lie down, exhausted, to do so. Despite coming out 45 minutes late, without an apology, and despite the fact that the chance of getting home successfully is now fading fast (this reviewer spent the night at Gatwick Airport's north terminal), there is absolutely no question that the hosts tonight threw one hell of a concert. There was no need to bring your own bombs, as the explosions were provided by System of a Down, but it's damn certain that 'everybody going to the party had a real good time'.