Review: Havok – Conformicide

Let me tell you how this review is suppose 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 and 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 and disappointedly, I 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.

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 Season of Mist. So one would think that a Loudness War master would be the order of the day for Alan, perhaps going with yet another DR5 hypercompressed 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 just do his thing. The net result is an absolute production home run in every way where all stake holders 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 blistering lead motif that one expects out of any high-quality thrash song as well.

But the band has also refined their prototypical retro-thrash sound to a certain extent by incorporating a lot more rhythmic shifts into the mix and by playing off new bassist Nick Schendzieols (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 the one that finally propels the song forward. Or how about how the little rhythmic accent to the main riff on the song “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 sacrifice 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 though, this record is rip roaring fun, and has the band firing on all cylinders pretty much all the way through.

I would also be bereft if I did not mention Sanchez’s top notch lyrics, which for 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) very 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.

Sanchez in an interview 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 as I said to come out of the retro-thrash movement that still actually matter. And Conformicide is a shining testament to that fact. Hang’em high indeed.

Dynamic Range