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November 20, 2005|Richard Cromelin

System of a Down

"Hypnotize"

(American Recordings/Columbia)

* * * 1/2

HOW could the musically uninhibited System of a Down possibly release a record that's not utterly surprising? Only by making it a case of double-album interruptum -- i.e., a second collection of songs from the same studio sessions that produced its last one, the 1.5-million-selling "Mezmerize."

Six months ago, that album moved the Los Angeles band's idiosyncratic art-metal to a new level, with guitarist Daron Malakian flexing newfound muscle as a writer and singer. This companion piece (due in stores Tuesday) sustains that standard while asserting a distinct identity.

"Hypnotize" has some of the circus-is-in-town surrealism that links System to the Frank Zappa avant-rock tradition, but overall it's more of a fundamental rock album, a direction signaled by an opening fusillade of fearsome thrash-metal riffing.

The quartet skewered the Iraq war on the "Mezmerize" track "B.Y.O.B.," and in hoarding this set of songs until now it seemed to anticipate a deepening unease over the whole adventure.

"We're going down in a spiral to the ground/ No one, no one's gonna save us now/ Where do you expect us to go when the bombs fall?" they sing in the title song. Indeed, the entire album is streaked with apprehension and anger, peaking with "Holy Mountains," a stately, epic centerpiece that mourns the Armenian genocide of the early 20th century.

Being System of a Down's version of fundamental rock, this music is packed with crazy cadences and a parade of unpredictable turns.

It's a measure of the band's tenacity and integrity that what seemed like an impenetrable foreign tongue when they introduced it seven years ago has become a universal language. It shows that you don't have to dumb down to hit big.

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.

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