System of a Down, the Dillinger Escape Plan @ Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne (29/02/2012)

The Dillinger Escape Plan, or “the support act” as was announced by Big Brother over the PA upon arrival, are one of the most consistently phenomenal live bands currently touring the world. Each and every time I’ve seen them play they’ve pushed the limits of what a band is capable of doing live. It was a slightly different story though in what was perhaps the biggest venue they’ll ever play in this country.

The band matched the chaos of their sound with equally chaotic moves (scaling amps, fold backs, road cases, gesticulating wildly, etc.). Front man, Greg Puciato, was a little less animated than usual. He cleared this up however, prior to their second last song of the night, Sunshine the Wearwolf, “I was told I can’t run on people. If I come out there the shows over,” he said, pointing to the crowd in front of him. Still, it didn’t stop him running to the barrier and screaming, “Destroyer!” and “Without my existence, you are nothing!” into the faces of fans. Unfortunately most of the crowd responded to the band with indifference. “You have a good tolerance,” said Puciato, to a quarter-full venue, realising just as much. With Panasonic Youth and 43% Burnt they departed, quickly, and a silver curtain dropped from the roof with the title “System of a Down” projected on the front of it.

The venue was far from full. Black curtains in the upper tiers concealed the unsold seats. When the lights cut out System of a Down appeared as silhouettes behind the silver curtain. Flashes of light accompanied each beat to the opener, Prison Song. It both looked and sounded great and the thousands of people in the venue lost their collective shit. It was the kind of spectacle one expects from an arena performance. But when the curtain fell so too did the immediate excitement of their presence.

The last time System of a Down toured Australia was in 2005. Seven years is a long time and time has not been kind to the band and their material. At first, they generally appeared interested in what they were doing, which made one think that their reformation wasn’t entirely about money. But for most of the night the band, especially the rhythm section, laboured through their parts. Vocalist Serj Tankian strolled casually from mic to keys, working through his unique and histrionic vocal range with varying degrees of interest, while guitarist Daron Malakian was set on challenging the assumption that he is actually part of the band. Instead he proved that he is the exception: an entertaining, talented and charismatic musician.

They were tight and the sound was great but overall they came across as flat and lifeless. My memories of System of a Down are of a much better band with much better songs. Their first two albums have many great moments; Needles, Deer Dance, Suggestions, Chop Suey and Psycho were a reminder of this. But Hypnotize and Mesmerize are such mediocre albums I’d almost forgotten they existed up until they played through Revenga and Radio/Video, which sound even worse now than they did seven years ago.

A single spotlight shined down on Malakian as he began Lonely Day. The image of a snowy mountaintop replaced the bands logo at the back of the stage. The significance of this was beyond me. Because it stayed up for so long, I can only assume that it was the bands cryptic way of telling their crowd that it would be mostly downhill from here, with a few peaks and troughs along the way.

The peaks were Aerials, with Ben Weinman from the Dillinger Escape Plan on guitar, and Suite-Pee, with Joey Jordison from Slipknot on drums. The troughs were Lost In Hollywood and a cover of Dire Straits’ Sultans of Swing, in which Malakian changed the lyrics to the chorus and sung, “We are System. We are System of a Down.” The crowd joined in at full volume. This was the pinnacle of horrible and I awaited some sort of landslide or snowstorm from the image behind them to make it all go away.

The trio of War?, Toxicity and Sugar closed out the set. The mountaintop fell and the backdrop to the stage became the cover of their self-titled debut album, now 14 years old. There is still something engaging about these songs, though parts of them have begun to erode and I can’t imagine that there will be much left of them in another 14 years time.