Surviving the Coast Starlight with System of a Down

System of a Down. Photo courtesy of

The train sucks.  There’s a reason nobody rides trains anymore.  They are awful, life-wasting machines with no other purpose than to be less effective than airplanes.

That being said, I ride the Coast Starlight train every other weekend.  Since I must have pissed off any number of deities throughout my life, one of them seemed vengeful enough to kill my beloved Subaru, Ellen.  A blown head gasket and cracked cylinder rod exiled me to the land of the transportationally challenged: the Amtrak station.

One thing I have learned from repeatedly subjecting myself to insomnia-on-rails is that sleep is an unattainable lie.  This means I had to figure out something to do for ten straight hours in order to avoid going insane.

I can’t read books since the train rattles worse than the meager change in my piggy bank, and I don’t have any more movies to watch, so I decided upon a musical voyage through the annals of rock and roll.  I decided to listen to the entire discography of my favorite band in the world, all at once, with no breaks.

I went into the trip down the coast with four out of five of the studio albums released by System Of A Down.  To say that I am a System fan would be a bit of an understatement, particularly since I own the CDs as well as the mp3s.

I started off with my all time favorite System album, “Mezmerize,” and settled in for the ride.

The haunting melody of “Soldier Side – Intro” readied me for what was sure to be a better ride than usual.  “B.Y.O.B.” and “Revenga” rocked me stupid while I got used to the fact that I was stuck on the  train for the next eternity.

The rest of the album was so fantastic that I decided to listen to it again after I had finished my first run-through.  And then again.  And again after that.  “Mezmerize” is just so…mesmerizing.  It alternates between hard and soft so seamlessly that the listener is enraptured for hours.  I think I listened to “Mezmerize” six times before I switched over to “Hypnotize.”

Released in 2005, six months after “Mezmerize,” “Hypnotize” was designed to compliment the previous album as part of a double-album.  In my opinion, “Hypnotize” isn’t quite as good as “Mezmerize,” but that’s like saying “Kill Bill Vol. II” isn’t quite as good as “Kill Bill Vol. I.”  They’re both masterpieces of musical mastery.

“Attack” dove straight into the face melting and I was once again lost in the auditory overload.  I have to say that “Hypnotize” and “U–Fig” are my favorite tracks on that album, and I listened to them more than a couple times in a row.  After three cycles of the entire album, plus the replays, I switched over to the band’s eponymous debut album.

“System Of A Down,” the first album of the band, is a rough listen.  I’m not saying it’s bad.  Goodness no.  It’s just meant to be one hell of an experience.  It’s in your face, loud, and emotionally charged.  Shy away if you can’t stand the sound of truth being screamed into your ears.

After pumping that album into my head flaps three times, it was time for “Toxicity” – probably the most commercially recognized album by System.  It was released three years after the first album in 2001, to a fan base clamoring for more.  Everybody knows the songs “Chop Suey” and “Toxicity,” and if you don’t, you’ve most likely been attacked by a yeti and now have amnesia, which would explain why you can’t remember them.

Even though “Toxicity” is not my favorite album by System, I could probably listen to it forever.  And ever.  So three cycles later, I was there.  I had arrived in Martinez, California.  It was about time to get off that damn train.

Now wait a minute sir, you might be saying. You forgot “Steal This Album!”  No I didn’t.  I didn’t own it at the time.

Now skip forward 36 hours, and I’m back on the train, clutching the CD jewel case for “Steal This Album!” to my chest.  I had finally found the elusive record hiding in the back of Rasputin Music, my favorite music store in the world.  Yeah, suck that Amoeba Music.  It was a dream come true.  The final piece to my musical jigsaw.  Oh boy, was I excited.

“Steal This Album!” was released in 2002, and it was rumored to be a compilation of B-sides and outtakes, but the rumors were wrong.  It was a full-fledged studio record imbued with all the power and intensity that System fans had become accustomed to.  Even though it did not overtake “Mezmerize” for my favorite System album of all time, it took me the whole train ride back up the coast to come to this decision.  I listened to “Steal This Album!” more than 12 times in a row.

Eventually I found my way back to Ashland to collapse into my extra-long twin and sleep for a couple years.  It was while I was drifting off to sleep that I realized I had learned a very valuable lesson from my musical trek through history: Life is kind of like a train ride; we’re all here because we have to be, so you’d better listen to some good music along the way or else you die unfulfilled and bitter.

I guess I should start steeling myself for the ride back down the coast a fortnight from now.



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