In the nine years since their formation, Denver-based metallers Havok have already turned out three fairly successful albums: in 2009, Burn landed them a deal with major label Candlelight Records, and two years later their sophomore release Time Is Up brought the band worldwide acclaim as one of the metal acts to watch for, landing them a choice slot on tours with metal legends like Anthrax, Sepultura and Testament. Their latest release, Unnatural Selection, cracked the Billboard Top 200 list in its first week and solidified Havok as a solid player, indeed one of the premier names, in the hit-and-miss '80s thrash revival – a movement comprised mainly of up-and-coming 21st century bands seizing the flame first stoked by the likes of Slayer, Metallica, Anthrax and Megadeth. From the simple but effective songwriting and tight technical skills to rock-solid production and vintage-style album art, this record comes off like a newly-unearthed time capsule from the Big Four's golden era.
Time Is Up may have asserted the band's technical prowess (it features some seriously blistering leads), but Unnatural Selection allows them a little breathing room as songwriters, offering a greater variety of song structures and tempos and a slightly looser, more melodically-oriented playing style. But not right away... first they have to knock your teeth through the back of your head with the one-two opening salvo of “I Am The State” and “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death.” Frontman/rhythm guitarist David Sanchez and lead axe man Reece Scruggs unleash hell in these combined shredfests, and the first track showcases the skills of drummer Pete Webber in an explosive break before the climax, while the second features some of Sanchez's most intense, scorching vocals to date.
With the following cut “It Is True,” the band seems to make a conscious break from the formula they followed in the previous release, stepping into a lower groove-style tempo with a warped edge, and they never quite return to the caustic nature of those opening cuts until the punkish, Anthrax-style intensity of the title track which closes the album. There's also a dark socio-political theme running through many of these songs (you probably figured that out from the titles alone), something not at all uncommon to the '80s icons which inspired it – Megadeth in particular comes to mind – and while Unnatural Selection is not a concept album, there's a consistent vision of a dystopian police-state future painted in fairly broad lyrical strokes, coupled with a battle-ready intensity that lends a more ominous tone to the proceedings.
The greater emphasis on melodic hooks begins to come through more clearly in mid-tempo cuts like “Waste of Life,” as Sanchez transitions to a clean delivery in the chorus – though the overall energy of that track wanes a bit during those periods, and at over six minutes overstays its welcome a bit. That low-key melodic approach does work well, however, in their rendition of Black Sabbath's “Children of the Grave,” which captures the ominous rolling-death rhythm and haunting mood of the original. One element that distinguishes the lower-tempo tracks is the robust bass laid down by Mike Leon, whose rhythmic union with Webber's drumkit is exact but still still loose and flowing, giving a superb undercurrent to tracks like “Worse Than War.”
Havok haven't exactly reinvented the wheel with this release, but they've found room to explore new ideas within a very well-established genre (which has, let's face it, a pretty damn rigid rulebook) and create some memorable hooks that may stick with you even longer than Time Is Up. While that album was propelled by heart-racing energy, Unnatural Selection draws its main strength from a deeper, more brooding intensity, brought out by the band's songwriting skills – which will ultimately stand up over time against their already impressive displays of technical prowess.