I look to some of Havok’s material as evidence that reinventing the wheel is not always necessary to come through with some solid music. The American thrashers’ 2009 debut album, Burn, if one were to ignore the atrociously immature lyrics, was successful on a musical front as a result of sheer, bare-faced energy and youthful exuberance. The band’s riffage evoked the likes of obvious influences, such as Slayer, Morbid Angel and Exodus, but it was nevertheless played with impressive dexterity and undeniable conviction. Their sophomore record, 2011’s Time Is Up, doubled-down on this. Whilst the lyrics only saw a slight improvement, Havok came through with some more intense, fiery shredding, highlighting a subtle influence from speed metal at times. Both musically and lyrically, there was nothing particularly special about the band on the surface, rather their appeal came directly from the conviction with which they played their blisteringly fast and infectious songs. The thrash outfit’s previous album, 2013’s Unnatural Selection, however, saw a significant change of pace for Havok, quite literally, in that a large portion of these songs felt a lot more restrained and insular, with a far less tangible power conveyed on these tracks. As a result, the band’s arguably generic sound was exacerbated considerably, making for a record that completely lacked replay value when compared to other thrash albums. Considering the gap between Havok’s new album, Conformicide, and their previous effort, I was hopeful that they had taken this time to work on the potholes created in their sound on Unnatural Selection. As for the end result, in a select few regards, this album does feel like a step up for the band, but for the most part, it suffers from much of the same ills as its predecessor. The awful lyrics are back, now with a tinfoil hat tinge to them, and this isn’t expiated by frontman David Sanchez’s vocal performances, which are considerably more banal than the group’s early output. Musically speaking, Conformicide reinvigorates some of the spirit lost on Unnatural Selection, but it still pales in comparison to that which can be found on Time Is Up. Ultimately, Conformicide just about restores some of what Havok lost on its precursor, but the end product is nevertheless a mixed release that is lacking in many regards.
On the musical front, F.P.C. kicks the album off well. Following a rather rudimentary acoustic section that doesn’t really serve much of a purpose, the whole band enter with guns blazing as Sanchez and Reece Scruggs’s guitar tones sound crisp and punchy, whilst Pete Webber’s off-kilter bursts of double bass pedalling work well with the straightforward groove. The instrumental section for the verse is laid down by a fierce slap bass section from Nick Schendzielos, which is good to hear, given that Havok’s previous albums had often suffered from the bass being lost in the mix a bit. Webber keeps up the interesting bass drum patterns, and the icing on the cake is the sudden chugged guitar accents that pop up at the end of the phrase. As soon as Sanchez’s vocals enter, however, things take a slight turn for the worst. Not only does the distorted effect on his voice clutter the mix slightly, but his style of delivery, which wavers between semi-rapped and semi-sung passages, is rather questionable. The incredibly over-the-top emphasis the singer puts on the harsh syllable sounds comes across as an attempt to sound tough that just ends up sounding rather trite, and the bursts of singing are also worked in rather awkwardly. I have always been a fan of Sanchez’s shouted vocals on previous Havok records, but even this style of delivery feels slightly amateurish here in how he stresses arbitrary syllables with a shrieking sound, which again sounds like an attempt at sounding badass that doesn’t go over quite well. Thankfully, the instrumental that accompanies Sanchez’s yelling is a continuation of the somewhat funky rhythmic phrasing of the bass and drums, but worked in with some great flashes of riffage from the guitars. It has to be said that one thing which is noticeable before even listening to Conformicide is the length of the album and the songs on it, with 10 songs spanning across nearly an hour’s worth of material. As such, some of the songs on here are far longer than any to have featured on Havok’s previous albums, with many of these tracks unfortunately not justifying their lengths. F.P.C. is by no means the salient culprit of this, but it showed signs of some lacklustre song structuring later down the line, largely as a result of the abrupt shift in tempo around halfway through the track, which, if one wasn’t paying attention properly, could have understandably been mistaken for the start of the next song. This sudden shift in tempo takes the form of a pretty basic thrash metal section, but it nevertheless displays some good guitar work, particularly during the solo. The main gripe I have with this, however, is that it seems that Havok weren’t able to fully commit to the funky sound exhibited on the first half of the track, so opted to break out into some standard thrashing to pad out the song’s duration.
As for the songs that are more evidently guilty of being unnecessarily dragged out, the first of the two tracks on Conformicide to exceed seven minutes, Ingsoc, comes to mind. There are plenty of great riffs all over this track, but most of them are repeated for far longer than is really necessary and this, paired with the abrupt tempo changes, reeks of a shallow attempt to prolong the song when, ironically, the interesting guitar work would have been much more impactful were it not needlessly drawn out at times. It’s also difficult to mention Ingsoc without mentioning the lyrics, wherein Sanchez displays the analytical depth of a 14-year-old who has just read the Wikipedia page of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Indeed, as the title of the song suggests, being a reference to the predominant ideology of the government of Oceania, this song is filled with references to Orwell’s dystopian novel, which, at this point, has unfortunately been cited so frequently by all sides of the political spectrum to such a degree that it’s use as a reference point has lost its initial potency. Sanchez’s humdrum application of some of Orwell’s ideas, as he shouts “Big Brother has total control” and the common “war is peace” slogan, is such an example of this, with the singer simply reciting concepts from the book without applying them in any meaningful way to any aspect of contemporary society or politics. Ingsoc is, however, by no means the worst display on Conformicide of Sanchez’s childish attitude towards his red pill ramblings. Intention to Deceive, for instance, handles what Sanchez’s sees as the issue of news stations pushing particular political narratives, but covers it in such a vague and superficial way that nothing can really be taken from this whatsoever. This isn’t a new topic either, and plenty of other artists have covered it in a way that is meaningful or witty, with Frank Zappa’s I’m the Slime instantly coming to mind as a simple but entertaining bash at the media’s ability to manipulate public opinion. In fact, Sanchez’s narrative on Intention to Deceive reminds me of I’m the Slime significantly, with the singer, like Zappa, speaking from a first-person perspective of the media, explaining its modus operandi as it addresses the listener, who is put in the position of the general public. Sanchez’s discussion of the topic, however, doesn’t retain the tongue-in-cheek silliness and self-awareness of Zappa’s, rather the singer takes himself far too seriously and churns out drab lines like, “Your mind was an open book / Until I told you what to think / I’m gonna fill it to the brim / With lies so your mind shrinks”. I could go on further picking apart the atrocious lyrics on this record, but there comes the point at which it has to be mentioned the extent to which personal preference plays a role in this. Many metalheads, when defending a thrash band who happen to write terrible lyrics, cite the fact that thrash is a genre that is infamous for bland lyric-writing skills. Even when it comes to the often covered topic of big government, the biggest thrash bands in the world have exhibited a complete lack of nuance and critical thinking discussing this, with Megadeth’s latest album, Dystopia, being a prime example. I, however, don’t find this to be a satisfying excuse, largely because some of the most impressive up-and-coming thrash bands don’t idly comply with the subpar standard set by their peers. Vektor, for instance, on their last album, Terminal Redux, spun an entire conceptual sci-fi narrative that was both solid in concept and in execution, making for an incredibly entertaining listen. Therefore, when a band like Havok simply employ empty platitudes to some ambiguous pseudo-political diatribes, they fail to significantly distinguish themselves from their competition. Of course, some people may simply choose to ignore the lyrics on this album, but I personally find them to be so upfront that Havok seemingly don’t want them to be mindlessly dismissed, and with these abysmal lines being shoved so forcefully into my face, I feel it necessary to critique them.
Returning to the musical side of things, I can certainly detect an effort from Havok to improve on the wanting songwriting that was featured on Unnatural Selection, and in some regards they are successful, whilst in others they aren’t. In terms of the guitar work, Sanchez and Scruggs come through with some much more textured and well-written riffs when compared to those which appeared on the group’s latest album. Hang ‘Em High highlights the pair’s ability to churn out plenty of solid riffs and apply them to a songwriting formula that comes together cohesively, with this track weaving through numerous different passages rather fluidly and, like on Havok’s early output, the group show that there is a place for rethrash in the current metal landscape. However, then there are tracks like Dogmaniacal that are limited in the scope of interesting ideas they convey, whilst also utilising said ideas in a much more run-of-the-mill fashion, evoking in me similar reservations to that which I had for Unnatural Selection. After all, thrash is still a very popular genre of metal, so it takes something special for a band to stand out. In the case of Havok’s first couple of records, it was their bold and brazen enthusiasm and spirit that made them such a remarkable act, but it’s tracks like Dogmaniacal that make me worry that this has worn off.
Overall, Conformicide is certainly a mixed release, which is especially true for someone who was a fan of Havok’s first two albums. Following the dud in their discography that was Unnatural Selection, the band’s latest effort is most definitely an improvement overall, but the shortcomings that its predecessor highlighted haven’t been completely resolved. For the most part, my reservations for this album revolve around Sanchez’s occasionally questionable vocal performances and his lousy lyrics, which are trite at the best of times. The better musical moments on this record are on par with those from Time Is Up, but there is also a lack of consistency that makes for a significant portion of this record being a lot less discernible from other contemporary rethrash bands. Ultimately, this record has aroused a level of internal conflict for me, as a group who I once admired for being an exceptionally impressive example of utilising the classic thrash blueprint with such an extraordinary amount of ardour as to yield interesting results have begun to lose their distinct identity amongst their peers. Conformicide is by no means the final nail in the coffin for Havok and, although I have very mixed feelings about it, I nonetheless feel more positive about it than negative, but it surely raises questions as for the direction the band will take in the future, or if it is even possible for them to reinstate the youthful fervour that made their first two albums so exciting.
The Vinyl Verdict: 6/10