To their credit, both System of a Down and Slipknot thrive despite disregarding, for the most part, the tenets of OZZfest era success -- shameless co-opting of rap elements, hollow sloganeering and ridiculous lyrical demands for respect and nookie. However, other than the fact that the groups' approaches differ from the norm, they're completely dissimilar. System of a Down exudes a cautious, pragmatic optimism, while Slipknot wallows in the bleakest nihilistic muck.
Like Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra, the probable father of the band's viciously sarcastic lyrical bent and singer Serj Tankian's acrobatic vocals, System of a Down not only points out flaws, it offers solutions. All research and successful drug policy show that treatment should be increased/and law enforcement decreased/while abolishing mandatory minimum sentences, Tankian rants during the stormy "Prison Song," which is also decorated with factoids (nearly two million Americans are incarcerated in the prison system) read in a detached, news-flash style. As a cure for overpopulation, Biafra cracked "Kill the Poor"; now Tankian advises We don't need to multiply/Die. But unlike some issues-oriented hard-rock groups of recent vintage, System of a Down isn't a wind-up political activism-figure, incapable of operating outside its slim, dead-serious concentration. It can be silly (pull the tapeworm out of your ass), sweetly prosaic (life is a waterfall) or spiritual (letting the reigns go to the unfolding/is faith, faith, faith).
Similarly, Toxicity offers broad musical diversity, although general patterns emerge. System of a Down prefers choppy guitar outbursts, propulsive choruses, startling false starts and oddly arrhythmic, elastic verses powered by Tankian's theatrical delivery. At its heaviest -- the opening sprint of "Jet Pilot," the crushing chant of "Bounce" -- the group matches its contemporaries with thick riffs and rolling drums. But System of a Down distinguishes itself from the pack with its disarming moments of quiet vulnerability, such as the oh baby, you and me resolution to "Prison Song" and the a cappella harmony breakdown during the otherwise manic "Deer Dance." It's not a calculated ebb-and-flow like the formula grunge bands perfected -- it's a few well-executed seconds of respite from the full-volume attack that make the louder moments seem all the more powerful.
Slipknot also allows itself to calm down at times on Iowa, constructing slow-building introductions to doom-ridden tracks such as "Skin Ticket" and "Gently," but the nine-piece band never seems entirely comfortable with its experimentation. Sooner or later, its tunes always revert to its trademark formula, a bludgeoning mix of tribal rhythms smothered in steady riffs. Singer Corey Taylor mostly issues guttural grunts that pulse in pace with the percussion, though sometimes he releases a tuneful, if thickly processed, wail. Slipknot's sound is uncompromisingly non-melodic and thoroughly practiced; it's also a bit too competent for its own good. One of the thrills of the band's live shows, other than its hideous masks, is the beautifully discordant din that occurs when its three drummers invariably slip slightly out of synchronicity. On record, they all drill away in unison, essentially rendering two of them superfluous.
Lyrically, Slipknot's content can be summarized in one song title: "People=Shit." There's no attempt to explain how human beings came to be so deficient or how they can improve; there's just a bare, grim assessment. Given to pity-ridden self-dismissals (everybody hates me now/so fuck it) and what's-the-point surrenders (everything's shit/everything's been taken), Slipknot might accurately voice the sentiments of today's alienated youth, but it offers its audience little to do but parrot these lines back in a cycle of minimum productivity. Whereas System of a Down offers answers, Slipknot posits the dangerous theory that there's no longer any point even in questioning.