Now that I have given it many spins these past weeks, I find most outcries from Conformicide’s detractors to be somewhat exaggerated, though some of what they say is undoubtedly true. Havok’s fourth full-length is not as hard-hitting as their previous work, and it’s overall message of rebellion against censorship, control, established codes and blindly respecting authorities sounds kind of preachy, corny, unoriginal and as fresh as the skin on that surprised skull’s face on the cover’s artwork. But hey, if this album has encouraged any metalhead to “open their eyes” and fight against injustice, then so be it, I’d drink to that certainly! I doubt most metalheads chose their political views or become social aware by listening to this or to any other metal music, though, but hey, at least Havok hasn’t built a career singing political rants only some Americans truly understand/care about (looking at you, MegaDave). And it is not that I am against the message, but there are more poignant ways to spreading it rather than with lyrics that appear to be written by a ten year old, on a metal record.
So, on to the second controversial issue: slow thrash metal. It just doesn’t do the cut. You play thrash? For fuck’s sake, don’t slow it down, please, don’t become Pantera, please don’t include a cover ver… oh fuck. Too late. Ok, to be honest to imply that this material is 100% groove metal would be inaccurate, and I for starters don’t dislike its inclusion, but the sound is unmistakably there, lurking at every corner, where before it wasn’t. Havok’s previous three releases were unadulterated thrash; fast and aggressive, with some degree of memorability that sat them apart from the grey mass of sound-alike hordes, especially their two heavyweights Time Is Up and follower Unnatural Selection. So the outrage from genre enthusiasts at Havok’s slowing it down is a legit concern. That being said… Conformicide IS NOT A BAD RECORD, clearly not as bad as some people have claimed it to be. Perhaps, it remains not particularly original despite its exploration of new sonic vistas, and in fact, I found this ‘evolution’ to be the expected step from the band, so the outcome wasn’t as surprising to me as to others.
Does the names I Hear Black, Force of Habit, Renewal or Act III ring any bells? Exactly. Major classic thrash bands at the beginning of the 90s changed their sound and reached to other musical realms for inspiration and variance, else they’d be cast out and forgotten (something that happened to most, anyway), since replicating their previous 80s masterworks wouldn’t be enough in the new, grungy decade. The results varied in quality, but it seemed the inevitable thing to do, either by force or by choice. Havok had no commercial reason to change their sound though, so the logical explanation is that they got tired of writing more of the same, and decided to vary it a little. What’s the crime in experimenting a bit? I know a great deal of metalheads are the epitome of conservative when it comes to the sound of their favourite bands or genres, but from the artists’ point of view, you need to challenge yourself from time to time, even if you’re successful with your established formula. It’s a matter of artistic curiosity and ambition, rather than the overused ‘betraying your roots’ argument.
Now that I have explained the minutia of the animosity towards this album, shall we move on to actually analyse its musical merits? Most songs remain firmly rooted in the thrash metal realm; even if they’re not wholly fast, with the exception of the brief humoristic crossover piece “String Break”. The most traditional numbers are single “Hang ‘em High”, “Wake Up” and the seven-minute “Circling the Drain”. The rest of the songs all have their (sometimes very sparse and short) moments of rabid velocity intersected with groovier mid-paced thrash, samples and other assorted ambient sounds. Think about some of the elements from those 90s releases I listed a paragraph ago, but with the modern and suitable production of something like Tempo of the Damned, Enemy of God or Ironbound. There are no ballads here, and no venturing into vapid alternative rock like Metallica did in the 90s either, so again, I think people that have felt ‘betrayed’ by Havok’s stylistic change need their buttholes to be daubed in some healing ointment.
I, as expected, don’t necessarily favour traditional compositions here over the more experimental ones. Opener “F.P.C” (Fuck Political Correctness) is quite amusing, with a compelling acoustic intro like so many thrash metal openers through the ages, even if its lyrical subject matter seems pulled out of a FB thread discussion. In particular, one can notice the terrific and acrobatic bass playing by Nick Schendzielos of Cephalic Carnage, an element that continues to be a force to be reckoned with for the remainder of the disc. The other seven-minute track, “Ingsoc”, is also among my favourites, with an enjoyable and headbangeable mid-paced cadence, even if the lyrics remain in moronic territory. “Claiming Certainty” is also not terrible (no pun Kreated), and in fact has some of the better guitar solos by Reece Scruggs and some flashy drumming by Pete Webber, and is followed by another of my choice highlights, adrenaline-fueled “Wake Up”. In reality, the four-piece is on fire in terms of musicianship, the riffs somewhat generic but compelling and complex enough. My only complaint will be Claudio Sanchez’ vocals, sounding like a hangovered mix of Zetro Souza and Mark Osegueda (with a hint of Dave Mustaine on “Circling the Drain”), and has always been the one thing from this band I think could improve a lot.
Will you like or dislike Conformicide? That might depend on your view of thrash metal as a whole. If we remember its history, and if Havok’s debut would have been released in 1985, this would have been the path towards their alternate 90s existence, a 1993 release, when the genre had already 99.9% of its body in the cryogenic chamber, just before it got activated. And if we compare this to that time’s output of bands like Anthrax or Megadeth, Havok’s material seems actually pretty good. Sure, the 80s were more potent, but the early 90s still managed to spit a jewel or two… and some decent if unpopular discs, akin to this 2017 album.
2. Hang ‘Em High
4. Intention To Deceive
7. Peace Is In Pieces
8. Claiming Certainty
9. Wake Up
10. Circling The Drain
David Sanchez – Lead vocals / Guitar
Pete Webber – Lead drums
Reece Scruggs – Lead guitar / Vocals
Nick Schendzielos – Lead bass / Vocals