The New Metal ethos is primal scream therapy. That brawny fella in Drowning Pool yowls, "Let the Bodies Hit the Floor!" -- he's the victim of a harrowing, suburban, latchkey childhood. The problem is, you just can't trust a maniac who brings his shrink along, and no defense lawyer in the world can make you feel compassion at the same moment you feel fear. But System of a Down guitarist Daron Malakian is a social menace who makes no excuse -- in Toxicity's notes, he thanks Charles Manson "for his inspiration and honesty." Do you take him seriously? Well, did you take Johnny Rotten seriously? SOAD are punks -- they don't beg your compassion or try to scare you with pompous theatrics.
What they do, on Toxicity, is rock with infectious enthusiasm that outstrips their '98 debut. Lest singer Serj Tankian's quavering anthemic style be mistaken for some kind of Eastern folkism (the entire band is of Armenian heritage), fervently nutty lyrics like "Pull the tapeworm out of your ass!" reveal his true source -- the Dead Kennedys' Jello Biafra. And unlike on the band's debut, the parallels don't end there. The lead track, "Prison Song," is a pounding political statement on the order of Biafra's "Holiday Inn Cambodia." Like so much of the Kennedys' oeuvre, it nearly verges on the pedantic, but gets pulled back by a hilarious, boldly sarcastic touch -- in this case, a refrain that subtly parodies Fred Durst's misogyny.
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There's none of the New Metal self-absorption here. There are, however, veritable kilotons of the old metal. Malakian's guitar work may have a hard-core punk soul, but the sonics are unmistakable -- spooky, seismic Slayer crunch, shifting into the gentle, semi-classical interludes of Metallica's . . . And Justice for All. Drummer John Dolmayan and bassist Shavo Odadjian are relentlessly athletic, hardly crude punkers. It must be said, too, that the lyrics, composed by both Tankian and Malakian, occasionally follow a metal tradition dating all the way back to Black Sabbath: namely, overblown poetry. But all these conventions are reconfigured and hammered into devilishly fun, thoroughly obnoxious little sonic sculptures -- from "Bounce," a jittery, comedic account of an orgy, to "Dear Dance," an indictment of militarism all the more pertinent in light of current events. And while you'll find the L.A.-based quartet on tour with angst metalers, they're too giddy, nasty and truly angry to be considered members of the same species.