When we discussed the best and the worst of the recent wave of comebacks from 90s era bands earlier this April, we made a special mention of System of a Down as the fence-sitters. In terms of keeping fans in agony for the longest time without recording new material, eccentric Armenian/American rockers are actually worse than Tool. The alt rock icons haven't put out an album in 13 grueling years, the last one being 2005's 'Hypnotize'.
A year after their last album, System of a Down announced that they would be going on a hiatus for a while so that individual members can pursue other projects. During the hiatus, guitarist Daron Malakian formed a band called Scars on Broadway, which was also joined by drummer John Dolmayan. But after a lukewarm debut album, the band went dormant. Dolmayan soon stepped away from the project and formed his own band, Indicator, as well as opened Torpedo Comics, an online comic book store.
Bassist Shavo Odadjian pursued his project with RZA of Wu-Tang Clan, forming a hip-hop group named AcHoZeN, worked on his urSESSION website/record label, and even kickstarted his own "cannabis and music-production company", 22 Red. Frontman Serj Tankian probably achieved the most success during the hiatus, pursuing his solo career which produced four albums, each displaying an eclectic range of influences, highlighting Tankian's experimental approach to music.
Then, in 2010, after a string of internet rumors hinting at a reunion, SOAD regrouped much to the delight of fans. They set off on a massive Europe tour to celebrate the comeback, headlining some of the biggest rock festivals including UK's Download Festival, Switzerland's Greenfield Festival and Germany's Rock am Ring/Rock im Park. The quirky rockers continued touring extensively and in 2015, they even played their first show in their home country of Armenia to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide in the Ottoman empire.
The band is still actively touring and has a spate of dates in 2019 too, but one fact is incongruent with almost all other comeback acts: Eight years after their reunion, SOAD still hasn't put out a single wisp of original material. No new single, no EP, no album. Nothing.
While fans took to the internet to express their obvious frustration, the band did not publicly address the reason for this, and Odadjian finally broke millions of expectations in 2017 during a Q&A with fans. When asked about the status of the next album, he responded, "I'm waiting for a new album too. It's not happening. I don't know. I don't know when it's gonna be. Not right now."
Soon after, Daron Malakian revealed that the band was sitting on new material but couldn't come to a consensus as to what to do with it. He then released the new Scars on Broadway LP, 'Dictator', which he claimed was comprised of new material Malakian had been shelving since 2012 with the hope that SOAD would finally get the ball rolling.
But this past summer, the band finally bared all to their fans after Malakian singled out Serj Tankian as the sole reason why the band couldn't get on the same page.
“Serj was never really a heavy metal or a rock guy,” Malakian said, addressing the creative differences between band members. He also revealed that he literally had to "beg" Tankian to join the band for their last two albums 'Mezmerize' and 'Hypnotize' since Serj wasn't really a fan of the sonically heavy direction that the band was taking.
"I’m the kid that grew up with Slayer and Kiss on my walls," Malakian explained. "Serj didn’t grow up feeling that way. He didn’t grow up a diehard fan. So I feel like the whole experience of becoming the lead singer in a hugely successful band was different for him than my experience was for me. To be honest with you, Serj didn’t even want to make 'Mezmerize' and 'Hypnotize'.”
It could have been a moment where things could have fallen apart for the band that had been around for almost 25 years, but in an instance that's rarely seen in the music industry, Tankian replied with a sprawling, apologetic open letter that addressed the issue.
“It is true that I and only I was responsible for the hiatus SOAD took in 2006,” he wrote. “Everyone else wanted to continue at the same pace to tour and make records. I didn’t. Why? For numerous reasons.”
Some of the reasons stated in the lengthy letter included how he felt the music the band was making was sounding redundant and repetitive, the wish for an equal cut of the money (“Daron [was] controlling both the creative process and making the lion’s share of publishing not to mention wanting to be the only one to do press”) and the fact that he didn’t feel connected to the music on the 'Mezermize' and 'Hypnotize' LPs.
If Tankian was already uncomfortable with the band's direction earlier, he was even further removed after the band reconvened. As mentioned earlier, during the hiatus, he put out records in a variety of genres, from rock to classical music, and even found a new career as a film composer (he recently composed for 'Spitak', an Armenian disaster film about the immediate aftermath of the 6.8-magnitude earthquake that crumpled northern Armenia in 1988).
Tankian wrote that he was leaving out other details – “like agreeing on the ‘sound’ of a new record, which we couldn’t do” – and a bit about sending notes to Malakian on many of the songs on 'Dictator' that he felt didn’t fit the mold of SOAD. “They played around with some of my songs,” he wrote, “suffice to say I think we tried.” Ultimately, Tankian decided to “draw a line in the sand” and the group decided to set aside the prospect of making a new LP.
“My only regret is that we have been collectively unable to give you another SOAD record,” Tankian wrote in a gentlemanly fashion to fans. “For that I apologize.”
But here's why SOAD's refusal to put out a new record could actually be a good thing. Getting the right comeback record for a band is not easy. For bandmates to reconnect and reignite the spark is surely not an easy thing. While some acts like LCD Soundsystem, My Bloody Valentine, Ride and Slowdive made it look easy this past couple of years, several have fallen flat and far off the mark.
A prime example is what happened to alt rock icons Smashing Pumpkins this year. In what has to be the messiest reunion of the decade, the Pumpkins' reunion hit a roadblock in its early stages as a feud between original bassist D'Arcy Wretzky and frontman Billy Corgan turned ugly. Ultimately, only three-fourths of the original lineup reunited to declare a new album, 'Shiny And Oh So Bright Vol. 1' and a supporting tour. The second sign of trouble was when the tours didn't sell as expected, with a lot of the venues barely crossing half capacity. When the album ultimately rolled out, it showed a band that was only a shadow of its previous self.
System of a Down side-stepped that blow by doing what most friends and bandmates often struggle to do in the midst of creative differences and ego clashes - they kept an open channel of communication and put everything out in the open with no pretense or false hopes. Despite their differences, both Malakian and Tankian have repeatedly mentioned how everyone in the band is still on great terms with each other.
"When people don’t see a record, they assume the worst about your internal relationship. But the truth is we’re actually better friends – at least I’m better friends with everyone than I’ve ever been,” Tankian said in a recent interview with Rolling Stone. “John’s [Dolmayan] my brother-in-law; he’s in my family," he added.
"We have a great time together touring. But sometimes putting together a record, and that creative output and how things should be done, is different in four people’s heads and it doesn’t always come together.”
Having to accept that is no easy thing for a band, especially of SOAD's stature, but that's just what they've done. Indeed, if you look at it in a level-headed manner, it might be best not to put out a new record at all rather than releasing a half-cooked record in the middle of a growing rift. Meanwhile, the band is still killing it on tour (although they don't tour as much anymore) and sounds arguably more in-tune and tighter than ever. In fact, they're opening for Foo Fighters at Sonic Temple Festival in 2019.
In spite of all the drama, Shavo Odadjian still remains hopeful about a new album emerging. In a recent interview with Consequence of Sound, he spoke about how the media misconstrued Malakian's initial comments about Tankian, and reconfirmed that the band is just doing fine.
"Everything that you heard over the summer, that they kind of brought into public, was stuff that was in the past," Odadjian said. "That stuff happened a long time ago. So, it’s like, 10 years later, something new came up, but it wasn’t really new. It was something that was really old, and they were just hashing it out. Because one person did an interview, and I guess in the interview they paraphrased his words and it came off wrong. And I read that, too, and it wasn’t like him. He wouldn’t blame anyone."
He continued: "I spoke with Daron, and he was like, “Dude, I didn’t say those things, I said it this way.” Anyway, that kind of made someone else [Serj] think something, and then that person had to tell their point of view. It was just point of views."
The idiosyncratic bassist also spoke about the ton of new material that the band is sitting on and how he hopes that it will materialize into a new record soon. "It’s just a matter of time. I just hope it happens sooner than later. But we’ve written stuff together," he said.
"Daron’s brought a lot of stuff in. I’ve brought stuff to Daron and we’ve worked it out. I have so much more stuff that is ready to go out. I’ve told Daron this, too. I’ve said, “We’ve gotta get this done,” and he’s like, “Yeah, I’d love to.” So, we all want to, and I think Serj is kind of doing his own thing, and I get it."
Here's hoping that System of a Down's material does see the light of day sometime, but only when they're all ready to do it on their own terms!