For some readers, seeing this name will be alarming. After all, their last record, Conformicide, opened with a song called “F.P.C.” which, if you listened, turned out to be short for “fuck political correctness.” Even putting aside the fairly uniform politics of the writers of this site, which I feel are perhaps either well-known or easily guessed and so not worth diving into in depth here, this definitely is a sentiment that put a lot of people on edge, both listeners and critics alike. After all, while there are many angles with which to engage the machinery of social justice and its occasional over-reaches or moments where faith and zealousness perhaps shoot past ability, the only people who tend to sit and stridently shout out a line like “fuck political correctness,” let alone as a chorus, tend to be of one rather specific political orientation. That this came out in the dawning of the Trump era compounded things; we were all put substantially more on edge, and while sometimes these types of sentiments are shared by the free-speech libertarian wing of the world, they were increasingly being used as justification for reaction and response by some of the more villainous and explicitly evil sorts both in America and abroad. I myself scuttled a review of it for this very reason; the riffs were undeniably great, not just good, but I was on edge, and so it felt wisest at that time to listen to my gut.
So what changed? Well, a new record with a new set of lyrics offers a chance to recalibrate our perceptions of things. Some bands fail this test utterly (here’s looking at you, Burzum) while others either show that they’ve grown past older ways of thinking or that somewhere between our interpretation and their execution, something was slightly off (a nod to Rush, a band substantially less right-wing than often painted). For Havok, it’s somewhere between those two; this set of songs spans the gamut from psilocybin mysticism and panpsychism to general political agitation about the lies of media, governments and a world complacent enough to go along with them. The tenor of things hasn’t changed, but the specific targets have, removing the toxic venom toward efforts of social justice and more toward the broader structures that poison and destroy the world, with special care given to technocrat types like Elon Musk and Zuckerberg as well as the military-industrial deathcult, from companies like Northrup-Grumman to the pro-war media wing to the falsified casus bellis of America over the past two decades. Things still have a, shall we say, Joe Rogan-meets-Dave Mustaine feeling, but there’s little here to provoke the same level of justified squeamishness as their last release.
This is a cause for celebration because, simply put, Havok are the best thrash metal band in the game right now. Their riffs have the perfect blend of finger-twisting menace and neck-snapping power, often sounding like the perfect child of Megadeth, Testament and mid- to late-period Exodus. If this record were dropped somewhere between 1988 and 1992, the peak years of this particular type of technical thrash metal, this would comfortably sit next to landmark records such as Souls of Black and the like as a potent and, importantly, catchy as hell record. Hell, you can hear the bass! On a thrash album! Anyone familiar with the genre and its history will perk their ears up at that notion, and for good reason; the genre has long had some of the absolute best bassists in heavy metal history mysteriously obscured by sonic aesthetics pushing production to bury them belong the (admittedly wildly kickass) guitars. Not here; pulling another trick from the classic period Testament playbook, Havok are well-aware of the virtuoso they have wielding the four-strings, paying close attention not just to the bass parts or the volume of the bass tracks but also to the tone. The bass is bright and round here, with plenty of treble and mid-range, cutting through the guitars like butter, having a sound sitting between the iconic spring of a fretless and the earthy growl of a fretted. All three string players are clearly virtuosos with their instruments, clearly having studied Rust In Peace-era Megadeth as well as the smaller but still important names like Toxic and Tourniquet.
The vocals here also deserve a special nod. Despite the rest of the band, from lyrics to riff-writing, having a particular Megadeth vibe, the vocals skew more toward mid- to late-period Exodus as well as Death Angel, having a tuneful but still ferocious bite to them. The vocals are uniformly of that nasally thrashy half-bark, but bear a surprising elasticity. Clearly their vocalist/rhythm guitarist has spent just as much time with hot honey tea and piano working on vocal ability in the screaming and harsh vocal registers as the rest of the band has with instructional DVDs for their instruments, and it shows. If one could somehow blur the lyrics into Simlish, Hopelandic, or any other kind of made-up pseudo-language, you’d find a set of powerful and commanding vocal performances. Like the rest of the elements of the band, Havok here sacrifices pure originality or novelty for both polish and superlative execution. The lyrics intersect here, making some passages feel cringey and uncomfortable, but thankfully devoid of the immediately alarming anti-social justice stances of the previous record.
Ultimately, whether you give this record a shot is determined mostly by your tolerance of Dave Mustaine. Granted, the band have never been as, um, outspoken as that legendary thrash metal bandleader and I don’t mean to imply they come close. Havok strike me more as lingering in perhaps a libertarian mode rather than an explicitly conservative one, which still places them to the left of certain major figures in the genre such as James Hetfield and Tom Araya, if still perhaps to the right of Alex Skolnick, Lars Ulrich and Kerry King. And to clarify, I’ve paid this much attention to the lyrics and their politics because clearly the band has spent a lot of time on these ideas, consider them of value, and so it would be improper and disrespectful to simply consign them to an unmentioned bit of ephemera about the record. They are important to the band and important to these songs; they simply feel not only like the weakest link of the record but honestly the only part that could make someone say no to it. The music is simply too good, compositions and playing of arch and skill that would thrill any serious fan of thrash, and the mushroom-mysticism cover art is gorgeous. And these lyrics are a good sight easier to get past than either their last record or especially any of the nonsense Mustaine has had come out of his mouth, and Megadeth is still a rightly respected and adored thrash metal act in spite of it. Whether everyone can overcome them is up to them to decide, though; if they do, a jaw-dropping thrash metal record awaits.
Label: Century Media
Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.