Album Review: Havok | ‘Conformicide’

havok new album review

The movement known as ‘re-thrash’ – i.e., new metal bands that are bringing, or attempting to bring, thrash metal back into popularity – was pronounced dead four years ago by Invisible Oranges. In the piece, it’s observed that Havok’s 2012 EP Point of No Return might be one of the then-last “notable piece[s] of work” to be on author Joseph Schafer’s iPod.

Interestingly, two months to the day after that column ran, Havok released their third (and, up to that point, best) record, 2013’s Unnatural Selection. It continued their mix of Metallica’s penchant for serpentine riffing and Slayer’s no-bullshit songwriting, the latter of which dominated their first two records and a good chunk of their third.

So here we are with their newest offering. That Conformicide is Havok’s fourth LP is fitting because it’s their …And Justice for All. Which is to say: Conformicide is their most ambitious, their most political, and their most self-indulgent work to date. It’s also the pinnacle of the entire re-thrash scene because Havok succeeded where many of their peers failed: striking a balance between being memorable and being ferocious. Thanks to riff after fantastic riff, surprisingly hook-y songwriting, and the most nimble rhythm section in modern metal, Havok crafted a 57-minute love letter to thrash’s heyday.

At least part of the credit goes to the fact that the band’s current lineup – vocalist and guitarist David Sanchez, lead guitarist Reece Scruggs, bassist Nick Schendzielos, and drummer Pete Webber – ellipses any past iteration. The quartet’s ability to interlock as a single unit throughout the record is a wonder. To wit, the space formed from the darting riff that opens album centerpiece “Ingsoc” is expertly filled in by Webber’s agile ride work, before doubling it on kick drums alongside Schendzielos. Or take “Circling the Drain,” where Sanchez and Scruggs defer to the galloping interplay between bass and drums to carry the song forward that includes a funky (!) middle section allowing Schendzielos to be the star for a few seconds. Even when Havok revs up to hyperloop speed (“Masterplan”) or slows down to ride a slick groove (the unfortunately named “Peace is in Pieces”), or when do both in the same song (“Intention to Deceive”), its members know when and where to accent every section of every song.

And as with many (metal) songs in 2017, these ten are often political in nature. Most of the topics covered are standard fodder for metal – political correctness, government corruption, war, societal manipulation by the media – but are nonetheless sold purely on the basis of Sanchez’s raging snarl. Despite being clichéd, a line like, “The fighting will never cease/ As long as it is still profits over peace” works because Sanchez’s cornered animal delivery feels honest and relatable. Even when he spends three (!) songs on religion, metal’s favorite punching bag, you can’t help but side with his blunt force lyricism: “It doesn’t matter to you/ That he’s a power-tripping maniac/ ‘Cause he’s got you convinced / People of other faiths should be attacked”.

Perhaps an autopsy on (re-)thrash is unnecessary, then. Much like Power Trip’s Nightmare Logic and Warbringer’s Woe to the Vanquished, Conformicide confirms thrash metal in 2017 can still offer superb records that can stand next to any other metal subgenre brethren. Hell, Havok even showed the Big Four how it’s done by making an album that’s an order of magnitude better than any recent release from those icons. Havok made not only the year’s premier thrash record, but one of the year’s high-water marks in all of heavy metal. It’s gonna be difficult to top something this impressive, but as long as Havok’s next effort doesn’t have a song called “Unforgiven” on it, there’s still hope.

Singles Round-up, February 3

Lotta polically-tinged singles released this week, which shouldn’t be a surprise.

Depeche Mode | “Where’s The Revolution”
Because of course they wrote this song. Not that we didn’t need it (or need the question asked), but c’mon. That’s maybe a little too on-the-nose for you guys. And this is all despite the fact that it’s a great song. Their best offerings haunt you to the core, and the ghostly vocals and paranoid, itchy production here do not disappoint. Martin Gore’s lyrics are eerily descriptive, too: “They manipulate and threaten/ With terror as a weapon/ Scare you till you’re stupefied/ Wear you down until you’re on their side”.

Havok | “Ingsoc”
Not only is this a seven-minute single, it’s the band’s longest song to date. It’s also better than anything on their last record. David Sanchez’s snarl gives the 1984-inspired lyrics some serious venom. Previous single “Hang ‘Em High” was a rousing cry for action, but here Sanchez sound like a cornered animal. 2017 will likely gonna produce a lot of angry music, and (literal) thrashers like Havok will lead the way.

Vince Staples | “BagBak”
What a run: Hell Can Wait EP, Summertime ’06, Prima Donna EP, and now this – a three-minute banger with no fat. Over a pulsing beat from Ray Brady, Staples bluntly avoids his civic duty on some reasonable grounds (Prison system broken, racial war commotion/ Until the president get ashy, Vincent won’t be votin'”), and opines for a companion with his undercutting humor (“This is for my future baby mama/ Hope your skin is black as midnight”). Vince Staples is on a goddamn roll, and I can’t wait to hear what’s next.

Mastodon | “Show Yourself”
So yeah, the band that made Remission and Leviathan isn’t coming back. The second single released from the upcoming Emperor of Sand LP is further proof that metal just isn’t what Mastodon does anymore. They’re still great songwriters, they can still write a killer melody when they feel like it, and Brann Dailor is still rock’s best drummer. But that doesn’t lessen the pain of losing the band that was once capable of knocking down a fucking brick wall.

Nickelback | “Feed The Machine”
I was surprised they were still a thing, too. The chugga-chugga riff is heavier than I expected, given that rock music of the ’10s isn’t exactly loud. It’s a welcome change of pace, if only for that reason. Lyrically, the song can be read as a comment on current events with somewhat sharp lines like, “Baiting every hook with filthy lies/ Another charlatan to idolize”. But this is a Nickelback song, so it’s also got this: “But now it’s your turn/ The ashes will burn/ And wither away”. Basically it’s big, dumb, arena rock ear candy requiring no thought, and no one does that better than these guys.