Heavy metal, sludge metal, doom metal, stoner rock – call it as you hear it – but the key point is that Wellington’s Beastwars have earned themselves a variety of enthusiastic praise from all parts of the metal world. Maybe it was just good fortune that their 2011 debut timed neatly with a fast-developing appetite for new vinyl releases, but in choosing Nick Keller to create the album’s extraordinary cover art they struck a creative jackpot that helped shoot them fast to the top of the NZ metal ladder. There has always been a master plan to being Beastwars, and the release of album number three, ‘The Death Of All Things’, has been widely anticipated to bring with it the death of the band. Sammy Jay Dawson talked with drummer Nato Hickey and idiosyncratic vocalist Matt Hyde about the album and those rumours.
To the mainstream NZ music listener, Beastwars’ emergence as a cultural phenomenon must have seemed quite the shock indeed. Rearing its ugly head from seemingly nowhere, their 2011 self-titled debut album took the country by storm, with almost no commercial radio play. Instead fueled by social media, word of mouth, heavy tour promotion and basic riff worship, Beastwars eventually became one of the Southern Hemisphere’s most talked about metal acts.
Finally here was a band that didn’t compromise on its values. Heavy music fans, tired of the genre’s clichés, now had a new favourite band as influenced as they were by artists whose stoner/doom roots meant they rarely rose above cult following status.
Dismissed as being ‘in the right place at the right time’ NZ’s mainstream media was quick to write off 2013’s follow-up release, ‘Blood Becomes Fire’, as merely a re-hash – but any such criticism was silenced when it reached #2 on the national album sales charts. Fans rejoiced and shared in their celebration as Beastwars earned international recognition, rubbing shoulders and touring with popular international acts such as Kyuss Lives!, High On Fire, Helmet, Melvins, Red Fang, Windhand and Fu Manchu.
Rumours soon after started to surface that since the beginning Matt Hyde (vocals), Nathan ‘Nato’ Hickey (drums), Clayton Andrews (guitar) and bassist James Woods had only ever planned on making a trilogy of albums, intending to then call it a day.
“I’m not sure who suggested it,” confirms Hickey, “but during the recording of our first record someone had the idea for Beastwars to only record a trilogy of albums. There was a real comfort in working within a constraint. It wasn’t like this band was ever going to limp on for 20 albums and then have a horribly over-dramatic break-up with us all hating each other, so it was nice to put a time limit on things. Go out on top.”
They decided on three themes, one for each album. The first (2011’s ‘Beastwars’) was surviving the apocalypse. ‘Blood Becomes Fire’ was about going into battle and the latest album, ‘The Death Of All Things’, is about dying in victory and transcending.
“The whole time we were writing ‘The Death Of All Things’ we were thinking, ‘If this is going to be our last album it has to be our best, or else what’s the point?’ It was great for us to be able say we’ll just create these three pieces that we’re really proud of, rather than just churn out riffs, as if that’s all we know how to do – and it definitely helped the writing process of the album.”
“Musically there were a lot of things different things we wanted to try that we couldn’t on the first two records. On those albums we were still kind of learning what the band sounded like and what its strengths were. With the new record we knew how Beastwars was supposed to sound, but wanted to push ourselves further.
“Even simple things like dynamics. We’ve had quieter songs on our previous albums, but it didn’t really translate to the dynamics within the song. Like if a song was more of a heavy loud song, it would be that the whole way through, but if a song were a bit quieter, then everything would sound like that as well. We wanted to make songs that shifted and created suspense within themselves, while still really trying to incorporate as much atmosphere as possible.”
Typically their songwriting has been done in the jam room, pretty much full tilt riffs played at full volume.
“Most of the time everything sounded really good heavy, but we started to think, ‘Maybe these riffs will sound better if we take our foot of the gas a little bit and let the songs speak for themselves.’ Something we’ve always tried, not just on record but when we perform live too, is to create that tension, then have that release.
“For example, Daggers from the first record, is basically the same ideas the whole way through, but when the drums go into that half time feel it really changes the dynamic of the song. So although we’ve attempted it before, I feel we’ve really nailed it on this album. We spent a bit more time trying to find the space in the music, not just fill every gap. Sometimes it’s easy to convolute everything, it’s a lot harder to strip things back yet make it sound big and spacious at the same time.”
While writing for the album officially began in 2014/’15, songs such as album opener Call To The Mountain have been regular features in live sets since as far back as the ‘Blood Becomes Fire’ release tour. New songs like Witches and Disappear push not only the classic dynamic of the band, but signal a shift in vocal direction for Matt Hyde, subduing his primal animalistic growl, in favour of a more beaten down, broken howl.
“Witches was written about a really weird night out I had in Wellington,” Hyde explains. “All the crazy people I found at this party. It kind of freaked me out, looking at the time at some stupid hour of the morning, and just having this very bizarre surreal experience with these crazy people. Vocally I wanted to convey a bit more of a sense of emotion to match the changing dynamic of the music for the album. I didn’t really want to just let rip over all the quieter parts of the songs, but lyrically I wanted things to stand out a bit more too. I guess it’s more about creating a character within the song as well.”
“Call To The Mountain we’ve had for quite a few years,” Hickey recalls. “That was really one that had been kicking about before we had a lot of the other ideas for the album pieced together. Once the writing process began the songs came in pretty quick succession, once a month we’d have a new song written.
“Eventually we had to book some studio time, so we decided to write five more to have the album polished off. It was a very organic process. We all had a lot of ideas so it became a matter of mixing and matching those to suit the songs. Thinking this was our last record we really pushed to make sure everything we were putting in was really about what was best for the record, and making it as unique a Beastwars’ album as we could.”
They drew musical influences from many different places, while deliberately avoiding others.
“We’ve never been a band that strictly listens to metal, so a lot of what we were referencing was away from the typical heavy guitar stuff. Myself especially, because I write a lot of the riffs, made a conscious effort to stay away from the clichés that sometimes come from metal. I listened to a lot of hip hop, heavy psych and goth stuff, Chelsea Wolf and such.
“We wanted to redefine what heavy was for us. It wasn’t that we weren’t inspired by other heavy bands, it’s that we felt there wasn’t anything we could add to what other people were doing. We could tune lower, play slower, but at the end of the day we had to do things our own way. We get labeled as a doom band pretty often, but I think there’s a lot of elements in our music that sound triumphant, as well as the more dense sludgy riffs.”
One of the key factors to Beastwars’ early success was that of artist Nick Keller. Keller’s intensely detailed, eye-catching vinyl album covers not only perfectly capture Beastwars’ own brand of doom laden sludge rock, but also were many fans’ first introduction to the band.
“Nick’s been with us since the start,” says Matt. “We’re the first band he did an album cover for – he’s our fifth Beatle and he treats us pretty well. It truly is his passion, he doesn’t see art as a job. The response we got when we revealed the artwork was amazing, People really feel something from that imagery. It really captures that ’70s fantasy art.
“There are a thousand bands releasing albums every week and a thousand websites where people want something written about them, everyone wants attention. You can write a great bio and have a funny story about your band, but if you’re lucky enough to show them artwork like Nick’s then they’re gonna pay attention and listen to what you have. I don’t think in the beginning anyone would have given us the time of day, especially coming out of nowhere. But when we put the first record out on vinyl, we got a huge response. It really made people take us seriously, and that first impression is really important considering there’s so much music out there.”
After tossing up between a number of studios, including options in Dunedin and Lyttelton, the decision was finally made to work with James Goldsmith at The Blue Room in Wellington.
“This was our first time working with James Goldsmith, but with the studio being five minutes walk from our houses in Wellington, and seeing as we rehearse at his studio, it just really made sense.
“A while back we recorded a bunch of demos with James, and when we listened back to them I remember just being blown away. Sometimes in the studio there’s a loss of energy, but because it was our jam space it was where we felt most comfortable. We’d been rehearsing there for a year, so we know where to set up and make things sound the best. It was a no brainer really.”
‘The Death Of All Things’ was subsequently mastered in early 2016 at Audiosiege Sonic Engineering, Portland, Oregon.
“Brad Boatright was also great to work with. We got in touch with him a while ago to talk about maybe down the line remixing the first two records. I sent him the first two vinyls and we just kind of stayed in touch, and obviously he did a great job mastering the album.”
However, when it came to searching for the right person to mix the album, Nato admits they rather got lost down the rabbit hole.
“There were so many options, and we went through so many mixes that we weren’t happy with. So when Brad put us on to Andrew Schneider, based in New York, we really couldn’t believe we hadn’t thought of him earlier. He’s worked with Pelican, Cave In, Big Business and Unsane. ‘Visqueen’ , which he mixed, is one of my favourite-ever sounding rock albums, which people have compared our rhythm section to before. He just got what we were about and translated that perfectly.
“He works really fast which we found really refreshing. He’d send me a song at about 5am. I’d ring around the guys and show them the mix, we’d go out for a coffee and take notes then send it back. Then he’d send us the finished version.
“It was a really different way to work than we were used to. When you usually spend days and days working on one song, and then have a week to think about it you start to get overly particular and forget to trust the person doing the job as much. I found myself not fighting Andrew’s mix. He really just made us sound like we wanted to sound.”
After what was an overdue hiatus, the future for Beastwars remains an uncertain one. Nathan will relocate to London, with the hopes to expand the band’s European profile, while Clayton, Matt and James enjoy some well-earned time with their families. They don’t have any plans set in stone says Nato, but at least there does now seem to be a future.
“When we made this record we thought the band might be over, but now we’re seeing ways we can keep this sustainable. Making music you just hope your fans stick by you, but the funny thing is the first two records have sold almost exactly the same amount. Once our fans get us, they want to be a part of it. It’s all been pretty unexpected.
“We always just tried to make the music we wanted to make, we never expected a wide audience to like it. In saying that I think our music does have a timeless quality and won’t go stale. Hopefully ‘The Death Of All Things’ will be something anyone can discover, at any point, and still be a relevant sounding record.”