Havok – Conformicide Review

I’ve had March 10th circled on my calendar for a while now. Since 2011’s Time Is Up, I’ve adored Denver rethrash act, Havok. Follow-up Unnatural Selection failed to live up to expectations, but I’m still playing Mr. Conductor on this episode of Thomas the Hype Engine. Though not devoid of blemishes, Conformicide successfully revives the fire of TIU and exploration of US without remaining shackled to either. The result propels Havok outside the norm and towards the peak of the growing modern thrash movement.

Helmed by the fleshed out bass of new addition Nick Schendzielos (Job for a Cowboy, Cephalic Carnage), “F.P.C.” immediately puts Havok’s stylistic evolution on display. Initial returns combine Rage Against the Machine with Countdown to Extinction for a slow, uncharacteristic groove. Though teasing Mustainean vocal accents at first, David Sanchez bends back to his trademark hooks as the tempo picks up. “Hang ’em High” and “Dogmaniacal” return Havok to prime form, TIU holdovers with more teeth. Exodus, Warbringer, and Evile influence from years past remain, but Megadeth, Testament, and Vektor comparisons join a newfound emphasis on structural variety and exploration. Swinging neckbreakers like “Intention to Deceive” and “Ingsoc” keep the party going with gripping tempo shifts and Reece Scruggs’ superb leads and solos. While TIU struck one note perfectly, US failed to replicate that consistency across a more varietal offering. Conformicide finds a happy middle ground, still turning to the razor’s edge when necessary but relying more on mid-tempo throwback, consistently intriguing diversions, and oh so tasty riffs. When Havok gets rolling, they are as great as ever.

Yet musical dynamism, unfortunately, overlaps with a lack of focus and restraint. Tracks unfurl slowly across this 58-minute behemoth, sprawling in a myriad of directions. This lends a sense of exploration when it pays off, as highlights “Ingsoc” and “Circling the Drain” prove, but at the cost of length. While no track is truly bad, Havok seemingly make no effort to emphasize their better material by pruning the merely decent. It’s up to Schendzielos and drummer Pete Webber to hold down the long-to-develop “Masterplan,” though its gang shout hooks are more than worth the wait. “F.P.C.” and “Peace Is in Pieces” stand out as an easily excisable 11 minutes. Most tracks tend toward superlatives but meandering and unnecessary diversions hold them back from the rarefied air.

Of note is Sanchez’s abandonment of worthwhile lyricism. I have no qualm with the man’s politics; say what you want about his takes, but they’ve been consistent since TIU. However, these are the most painfully on-the-nose lyrics of Havok’s career. Torching everything from political correctness and the media to the old faithful tandem of government and religion, Sanchez finds nary a gripe that he can’t bash over the head with a 50-pound tuna. Thrash might not be known for its eloquence, but try getting through ham-fisted lines like “Politicians and big business/The United Snakes of America” without snorting or rolling your eyes. Conformicide’s lyrics are a far cry from the overstated but still tolerable “Waste of Life” or “Give Me Liberty… or Give Me Death,” let alone the nuance of “The Cleric” or the theatrics of “Covering Fire.”

Lyrics aside, Sanchez sounds revitalized, recalling TIU’s top-notch blend of emphasis, timing, and panache. He registers higher and more extreme than previous entries, but his performances on adrenaline shots “Hang ’em High” and “Claiming Certainty” show he can pull it off. Very few thrash bands can touch the all-around talent of Havok’s ensemble work. Steve Evetts (Sepultura, Warbringer) brings a master’s touch to the mix, yielding one of the best thrash productions I’ve heard since Time Is Up. The most obvious beneficiary of this is Schendzielos, who avoids the embarrassing neutering most bassists receive. To say the bass work is a boon for the band would be an understatement. Schendzielos’ five strings lend the band a full body, picking up down moments and earning his spotlights on “F.P.C.” and “Circling the Drain.” Likewise, Webber continues his run as one of the best drummers in the genre, selecting the perfect beat pairing with sommelier’s precision.

Havok’s immediate rebound from Unnatural Selection is heartening, but their willingness to forcibly expand modern conventions in the process is downright exciting. Rather than backpedal into Time Is Up retreads, Havok carve out a new road to stardom. With some refinement, I anticipate more boundary pushing will bring even greater success. Contenders and pretenders alike should take notice.

Rating: 3.5/5.0
DR: 9 | Format Reviewed: 192 kbps mp3
Label: Century Media Records
Websites: havokband.com | facebook.com/havokofficial
Releases Worldwide: March 10th, 2017

Written By: Alex-Fi

Let me tell you how this review is supposed to go: First, I tell you that Havok is a Denver-based collective whose main weapon of choice is the riff. I then explain how the band is one of the few that are still relevant today despite being unquestionably retro-thrash, then proceed to point out that 2011’s Time Is Up is probably one of the strongest records to come out of said retro movement. I follow-up with a brief overview of their latest, entitled Conformicide, pointing out its various high points to underscore the fact that David Sanchez and Co. really do know how to throw down. Finally, I disappointingly end with a Steely D “3.5” just to piss off all the Havok fans that know for a fact that Conformicide is probably their strongest effort to date. Cue album credits, DR score, throw in the obligatory unicorn somewhere ever so subtly and collect my check [There will be no check.Steely “3.5” D.].

Unfortunately for you, I’m not officially an AMG staff member even though I a) stayed at a Holiday Inn Express once and b) pretend to be. So this ain’t gonna be that kinda of review. Deal with it.

Riddle me this: When is the last time you could actually hear the bass player on a thrash record? How about the last time the kick drums had a real visceral impact on your ear drums? Frankly, when is the last time you heard a modern thrash record that sounds as good as it looks? Well, my friends, today is that day. Havok’s new opus is one of the best sounding records of the year and absolutely destined to make our year-end list where we extol the production mighty and condemn the volume fiends.

I made, in fact, this exact observation to the record’s mastering engineer Alan Douches of West West Side Music who freely admitted to me that this was indeed a win for dynamics. Both the band and their very talented producer and mixing engineer Steve Evetts had one focus in mind when recording Conformicide and that was to make it sound as good as it possibly can. What’s ironic is that this was Havok’s big label debut, signing on with Century Media after completing their three-album stint with Candlelight Records. So one would think that a Loudness War master would be the order of the day for Alan, perhaps going with yet another DR5 hyper-compressed master or worse. But not so as Sanchez knew how strong the source material is on this record and decided that it was more important to convey his sonic vision in its totality than to sacrifice it in the name of volume. So Alan was allowed to do his thing. The net result is an absolute production home run in every way where all stakeholders involved are on full display from the minute you press play till the second it ends. Put simply, you don’t need the vinyl master on this one, even the Spotify stream sounds fantastic, thrash you very much.

Musically, Conformicide is another win for the band on several fronts, chock full of all the usual thrash tropes one would expect out of the Sanchez camp. Tracks like “Hang ’em High” and “Intention to Deceive” come instantly roaring out the gate with riffs that are both instantly addictive and sear on contact. Both also include the proverbial mid-flight, neck-snapping breakdown into a blistering lead motif that one expects out of any high-quality thrash song.

But the band has also refined their prototypical retro-thrash sound by incorporating a lot more rhythmic shifts into the mix as well by playing off new bassist Nick Schendzielos (Job for Cowboy, Cephalic Carnage) with aplomb. For example, listen to the track “Ingsoc” where the band offers up a buffet of catchy riffs before settling on one that finally propels the song forward. Or how about how the little rhythmic accent to the main riff on “Claiming Certainty” first starts in the background, is then seamlessly brought to the fore, and then shoved to the background again for the band to introduce yet another neck snapper breakdown before finally finishing you off. Every track on this album is a scorcher and will keep you entertained all the way through.

If I had to nitpick, though, the record is a hair over an hour long, which like this review, is a bit more thrash than my ears can usually handle. Part of the problem is that added “refinement” I talked about earlier comes at the expense of the album’s immediacy. For example, although I like what the band does on tracks “Ingsoc” and the closer, “Circling the Drain,” they do overstay their welcome at over seven minutes long and could definitely use a decent edit. But overall, this record is rip-roaring fun and has the band firing on all cylinders pretty much all the way through.

I would be bereft if I did not mention Sanchez’s top-notch lyrics, which many might find over the top in their overt anti-government rhetoric and Orwellian imagery. Regardless of your political beliefs, I think you can agree that the lyrics on Conformicide are a) well written (read: not Mustaine bad) and b) work exceptionally well in the context of the songs they accompany. When Sanchez screams “The United Snakes of America” it’s hard not to put on your best anarchist’s smile and just jam to the breakdown that ensues. And the rest of the album pretty much follows suit.

In an interview, Sanchez once said, “The riff is the heart and soul of heavy metal in my eyes. If there’s not a good riff, then what the fuck are you doing playing metal?” Although Sanchez’s mantra is somewhat myopic, it has certainly served him and his cohorts well as Havok is one of the few bands to come out of the retro-thrash movement that still actually matter. Conformicide is a shining testament to that fact. Hang ’em high indeed.

Rating: Making Thrash Great Again!

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