As one listens to System of a Down's latest album, ''Hypnotize," it's easy to understand why some harbor an intense dislike for the band.
The Los Angeles quartet demands a lot of its listeners. Yes, it's a rock band, but it's also a bunch of musical marauders who joyfully plunder any genre in service of their songs. Neck-breaking thrash metal? Absolutely! Ethereal world music? Definitely! Clubby disco beats? Oh, why not! Musical twists and turns don't simply occur from track to track but often within the confines of the same song, and that, for some, makes this a very vexing band.
Of course, what some find vexing others applaud as bracing, and it's that diversity that makes this one of the most compelling rock acts around. With so much unhinged energy, so many elaborate and daring compositions, this music tickles the ear and challenges the mind. There's never been anything rote or predictable about a System of a Down album, and that includes ''Hypnotize," the stunning completion of a double album that began with ''Mezmerize," released in May.
''Hypnotize" is the more epic of the two, with all the rococo theatricality of Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman in peak ''Bat Out of Hell" form. Still, this is more ambitious and expansive music, crammed with wacky ideas and images. It's grandiose, provocative, and more than a little ridiculous in the best possible way. And as with ''Mezmerize," this is progressive rock at its most economical. Of its 12 tracks, only two clock in at four or more minutes -- ''Holy Mountains" and ''Dreaming." Five are under three minutes, but the band elevates every moment into a thrilling mini-drama.
Then again, why expect anything less from an album that aptly begins with a song called ''Attack"? Singer-guitarist Daron Malakian, bassist Shavo Odadjian, and drummer John Dolmayan drop riffs with the deadly precision of a guillotine, then Malakian and lead singer Serj Tankian offer sweet harmonies before the bombast crashes through again. It's a battering ram of a song with just enough tempo changes for everyone to catch their breath.
But not for long, as that dynamic repeats itself on ''Dreaming." Given how much System of a Down relies on this tactic, the band's sheer musicality keeps the device from growing stale. Political pronouncements are sprinkled throughout, especially on the closing track, ''Soldier Side" (''Soldier Side Intro" opens ''Mezmerize"), in which Tankian and Malakian sing:
They were crying when their sons left
All your men must go
He's come so far to find no truth
He's never going home
Only with that song, and the disarmingly gentle ''Lonely Day," does the band come up with something even remotely structured like a single. Despite the success of such songs as ''Chop Suey!" and ''B.Y.O.B," this band has never thought in terms of radio-friendly hits, and with albums this staggeringly good, there's no need. With ''Mezmerize," System of a Down already has one of the year's best rock albums; miraculously, ''Hypnotize" surpasses it.