Genre: Thrash Metal
Release Date: March 10, 2017
Length: 58 minutes
Label: Century Media
Producer: Steve Evetts
Personnel: David Sanchez (lead vocals, rhythm guitar), Reece Scruggs (backing vocals, lead guitar), Nick Schenzielos (bass), Pete Webber (drums)
Many metal fans were eagerly awaiting March 10th in anticipation of Havok’s brand new thrash release, Conformicide. From the early 2000’s to the early 2010’s, a variety of bands made an attempt to bring thrash back to the mainstream of the rock and metal world. Eventually, this movement died, and few groups emerged. Havok got lucky. Not only did they survive the neo-thrash fallout, but they remained respectable and true to their thrash style. Though their third release might have been a slightly poor mixture of laziness and experimentation, they lost few fans, and now here we are with their fourth effort. Several people I follow have declared Conformicide a new thrash classic. Is it? Let’s find out!
On Conformicide, Havok maintains that early Megadeth thrash feel they’ve had in the past, but now they also have the aggression and power of a Slayer or a Pantera, and they really are a sort of effective mix of those three bands I mentioned, plus Metallica. The album even contains specific musical moments that bring to mind thrash classics like Peace Sells, Vulgar Display of Power, Kill ‘Em All, Reign In Blood, South of Heaven, And Justice for All, and Rust In Peace; but also more surprising things like Death Magnetic, The Black Album, State of Euphoria, Dookie, American Idiot, Suicidal Tendencies, the great RHCP material, the punk rhythms of The Ramones, and the discography of Iron Maiden.
Not to say Havok is derivative for these reasons, any more than Metallica was of Diamond Head or Iron Maiden, any more than Slayer was of Mercyful Fate or Venom. Rather, the influences are much more diverse this time around. Havok is moving away from their Megadeth cover band sound and progressing past it. The guys of Havok spent three years working on this material, and they have certainly matured in both sound and musical ability.
Havok cuts their own cloth, too. Sure, they are fast, wrangle mean riffs, and throw in awesome blast beats, but they also craft excellent thrash compositions here that have technicality, crazy rhythms, and various timings. This is definitely more diverse, dynamic, and layered in all ways than their last three albums. They have a lot of instrumental, lyrical, and vocal aggression, and they put it to good and disciplined use.
For one, David Sanchez’s vocals are fantastic. He comes into his own here with a growly shriek that Havok puts to marvelous use. The instrumentation is amazing as well. Pete Webber has a lot of groove behind the kit, and he is both tasteful and skilled. He may use the cymbals a bit too much, like Lars Ulrich, but he doesn’t rely on them. David Sanchez and Reece Scruggs, on rhythm and lead guitar, hit us up with some sharp, crystal riffs that are clear, harsh, and memorable.
How about newcomer Nick Schendzielos? He has an awesome, slapped bass style that fits the band well, and the bass and drums regularly come together like puzzle pieces, giving us a great picture of funky groove. Rarely will you hear this much funk injected into metal songs, other than occasionally with Suicidal Tendencies, Robert Truillo’s old group.
Not only is the instrumentation great, the mix is delightful as well, with well-balanced drums; guitars in a right, middle sort of place; and vocals just barely out front. However, the real star of the mix is the bass, which is louder and more in your face than almost anything in the current metal scene. We haven’t heard such a loudly pleasing metal mix in quite a while, and I love it.
Now, one point of division among many critics is Conformicide‘s lyrics. The theme of the album – never mind the ridiculous song titles – is all about people pulling their heads out of their butts. Though that’s not a new metal topic, Havok kind of expands upon that idea, sticks to it, and does it pretty well. They take the cliché metal lyrics of death, famine, disease, manipulation, and conformity and update them, making the songs timely and relevant. They can all easily be seen as a metaphor for today’s own headlines. David Sanchez said in a recent interview with AXS and Metalholic that Conformicide is all about how, like in George Orwell’s 1984 (which the song “Ingsoc” references in a nice shout out), our culture is getting lazier, more conformed, and more comfortable with hiding from reality and swallowing the pills we’re given. We swallow the media, and “whoever controls the media controls the mind,” as Jim Morrison said.
The system is the problem, but it’s us who let the system come about, and this conformity is our disease. “Everything is completely backwards [now], versus the way this country was intended to operate when it was founded in the 1700’s,” Sanchez said. “The rules were meant to come from the bottom up, not from the top down. And now we’ve seen a complete reversal of that idea, and no one seems to care, and that’s why I’m very pissed off, and that’s why a lot of the lyrics from this record are what they are.” Sanchez also believes we’ve been “circling the drain” for a bit over 100 years now, especially ever since the passing of the Federal Reserve Act. Interesting stuff, and Sanchez obviously put thought into the album’s lyrics. Big Thomas Jefferson fans, these guys. Havok began their writing process back during the Obama administration, but Sanchez is hoping the Trump era might bring some beneficial change to America.
Yep, he actually said these things, and the band seems to be made up of libertarians. Which leads me to a fear I have about Conformicide. Some people might see the lyrics as a Make America Great Again or “Tea Party fanatic” sort of effort and dismiss it, much like many critics did with a little release from Megadeth themselves last year. I remember reading and watching even rock and metal critics give Dystopia bad to neutral reviews where one of the biggest negatives they harped on were its so-called “conspiratorial, ultra-libertarian, InfoWars” type content. Hopefully, Conformicide can avoid that boat and get the recognition it deserves.
As for the lyrics themselves, aside from the context in which they must reside, how are they? There truly are some interesting libertarian thoughts, but they are more overt than Sanchez’s past political meanderings, and that’s not always a good thing. Conformicide is Havok’s angriest, most aggressive album, and the lyrics, in their cadences and aggression, fit the music well. They have a whole new venomous level, but there is also some cheese at Countdown to Extinction and United Abominations levels.
For one thing, the lyrics are extremely one-sided. For instance, three songs criticize religion. Some of the criticisms I agree with, some I don’t. “Dogmaniacal” may very well be a criticism of Islam. “Claiming Certainty” might be a critique of Catholicism. “Masterplan” is the age old – but here shallow-shown – argument of “How can a loving God let suffering happen?” Sanchez, however, is not fair in his examination, not taking into consideration counter arguments at all, and he doesn’t even provide real answers himself. In “Dogmaniacal,” he says all holy books command their readers to attack people of other faiths, but this is not true. The lyrics purport to be an examination of topics, but examine only the surface. Maybe I’m asking too much of metal lyrics. Maybe lyrics from the likes of Geezer Butler, James Hetfield, and Steve Harris have spoiled me. While I don’t think Havok’s lyrics on Conformicide are the best, they’re decent, and they do have an enjoyable vibe. In the end, this is a metal album, and we can get past such things.
Another negative is also one of my positives: Schendzielos’s bass. It’s awesome, but sometimes it draws unnecessary attention to itself. Schendzeiolos plays excellently, don’t get me wrong, and his style certainly adds to the music at hand. It is cool to hear enough slapped bass on a metal album to make Flea proud, and at times it works perfectly. But it did occasionally take me out of the songs.
Also, though the track listing is pretty excellent, two or three songs are just fine. Especially “Masterplan,” which plays out in an oddly confusing way among the rest of the album’s clarity. The first two sections of the song, when taken by themselves, are good, and the song’s shouted backup vocals are neat. Yet the song itself, when the intro is over – and in the way the lyrics, vocals, and instruments all mix together – sounds shaken. If Havok had been more keen on trimming the decent songs to make the great ones stand out, and if perhaps they’d had one or two more memorable songs, we’d have a stone cold classic on our hands. There just aren’t any songs that stand out like a “Ride the Lightning,” “Holy Wars,” or “Angel of Death.” Instead, this is more like Hell Awaits to Reign in Blood or Cowboys from Hell to Vulgar Display of Power.
As for the songs I liked, “F.P.C.” is hilariously awesome and gets the album off to a rampaging start. “Hang ‘Em High” furthers the aggression aimed at politics and gives us our first great track, which sees Sanchez at the height of his growl-scream. “Intention to Deceive” is another favorite, and “Ingsoc” absolutely blew me away, by far the best thrash composition on this record. “Peace Is In Pieces” is pretty awesome, too, and contains one of the best example of Havok’s bass and drums locking together, especially in the intro. The album ends with two biting, scathing numbers, “Wake Up” and “Circling the Drain.”
I don’t think Havok’s Conformicide is the thrashterpiece that some have been declaring it, but it’s also not a derivative throwaway. This is only Havok’s fourth studio album, and the boys in the band have grown as songwriters and musicians. I think the best is yet to come if these guys stay together and continue growing their music. I won’t throw more crap at Havok than they deserve. Conformicide is a really good release. I do think this will be one of the essential metal albums of 2017, and I hardly see anything better coming out of the thrash world this year. Hopefully, Conformicide is a harbinger of future things, both for Havok and the metal world.
I’m going to give Conformicide an 85%.