With Shihad already marking a quarter century of solid musical contribution it’s more than timely that the capital should have another massive metal band to celebrate, look forward with and lay international claim to. Beastwars deserve to be it. Their newly released sophomore album is entitled ‘Blood Becomes Fire’ and serves witness to the end of days, a reflection on mortality, death and disease. Music to go into battle by, as the fiery foursome’s spokesmen Nathan Hickey and Matt Hyde tell a newly shaken Westley Holdsworth.
As I picked up the phone on the Sabbath day to call Beastwars’ drummer Nathan ‘Nato’ Hickey and vocalist Matt Hyde in their hometown of Wellington, my own hometown of Auckland was struck by a rare event, an earthquake of magnitude enough to shake my house from side to side. I still can’t find a better way of explaining how heavy their new album ‘Blood Becomes Fire’ is, than that feat of natural timing.
“It’s a heavy album, both sonically and lyrically,” says drummer Nathan Hickey. “To us, this music is like getting psyched up to go into battle. You could be at war with someone else or yourself.”
Beastwars‘ rise to New Zealand metal royalty seemed to have happened overnight, but it was actually the fruit of labour by some smart and dedicated musicians, since their beginnings in 2007, that have seen them grow and grow.
Released on limited edition vinyl and CD, their self-titled 2011 debut album crashed into the NZ charts at #15 and saw them tour the country multiple times. ‘Beastwars’ was a two-time finalist at that year’s NZ Music Awards – losing out to Shihad’s ‘Ignite’ for the Best Rock Album Tui, but winning the Best Album Artwork category – as well as making the 2012 Taite Music Prize shortlist. With that in mind the ‘difficult second album’ might well be expected to prove to be a daunting task.
“Dale Cotton actually mentioned that a few times when we were recording,” laughs Hickey. “He was like, ‘Aren’t you worried about the pressure of following up an album?’ I said to him, ‘No, no I’m not, at all.’ And he didn’t believe me, he said, ‘Nah you’re bullshitting.’
“We were just doing what we did with the first album. We’ve got a bunch of songs, we’re recording them [and] if people like them that’s great. But we’re just making some songs that we like.”
Hickey sounds genuinely unfazed by the pressure of following up such a huge album as Hyde adds his take.
“I felt there was pressure, we had to out-perform what we’d done. I wanted to make a better record.”
For Hickey the big difference between how they approached this album and the debut was simply down to time, and that they spent a lot of that time exploring new sounds and tones.
“We went down the rabbit hole a few times getting guitar sounds. We had this really beautiful amp that was this old ’60s HiWatt amp that belonged to Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac when he toured NZ. He left it behind and we used that for both bass and guitar. It was really versatile. We used all these different pre-amps for the guitars and spent hours and hours and James [Woods – bassist] looked at us after seriously about five hours, and was like ‘Is that good’ and we were like, ‘I think we liked it better at the start.’”
‘Blood Becomes Fire’ opens with Dune, Matt Hyde’s vocals reminiscent of their previous album, his strong, unworldly growl on full display. It’s the shortest track on the record at just three minutes and likely designed to ease you into the following track, Imperium, where things start getting really interesting. Beastwars and Cotton, who also recorded, produced and mixed the earlier album, haven’t simply repeated themselves – although I’m sure fans would have been happy enough with that.
The songwriting has shifted to an even grander scale. The term ‘epic’ is well and truly overused in metal circles, but there really is no better way to describe the 10 tracks on ‘Blood Becomes Fire’, Imperium being a prime example. Hyde has expanded the use of his voice throughout this album. There’s chanting, growling, hissing and even singing as he takes you into a dark world of hopelessness and despair, told through the ‘eyes of a dying traveller from another time’, a theme their music well matches.
Tower of Skulls, the album’s first single, is a hymn to futility. You really feel like Hyde is delivering a sermon to the damned during the song’s devastating chorus as he delivers some powerful lyrics. ‘Come join us here, join us forever. Cut all your time, that is just human, when in the end, we are just born to die. Come lie with us, deep in the river.’ Hyde explains the vocal changes.
“I consciously went in thinking I wanted to do that. I knew that we had to change or we’d die. It’s a bit of a tightrope to walk, wanting to explore new sounds but I was encouraged by Dale and the guys in the band.”
“I’m really happy with it, Hickey adds. “Once we finished recording for the 10 days and we came back to Wellington I was like, ‘Oh wow, what did we actually make?’ I couldn’t really understand the album to look at it as a whole. But it feels to me like a natural evolution, everything that I liked from the first album is there, the sounds and the heavy riffs, but just taken one step forward and one step sideways.”
The group returned to friend and collaborator Dale Cotton to record ‘Blood Becomes Fire’ in his Dunedin Audioworkshop. Hickey describes the environment as laid back, matching his outlook on the pressure of the sophomore album.
“It was great working with Dale because he makes it feel so easy, you’re not just making a record. It’s the second time we’ve recorded in his house – a different house to the first album. We set up the drums in a soundproof garage that’s kind of under the house with cables running up to his lounge, which was the studio control room, and it just doesn’t feel like there’s any pressure there. You’re just in this guy’s house, hitting the drums, you’re not really in an intimidating studio environment.”
“You don’t feel like there’s a clock ticking. You have time to explore and hopefully you’ll come out the other end,” Hyde adds.
The album was recorded almost exactly a year ahead of its April 20th release, during Easter 2012. That part of the process took a week and a half, whereas their debut took just four days. Hyde cites this extra time and hence more experimenting as one of the main reasons this album sounds different. Guitarist Clayton Anderson sounds as though he’s been let loose, there are more lead lines, harmonies and added touches and James Woods’ bass tone shifts through each song to sit perfectly between drums and guitar. In line with my own recent experience there is talk of the house actually shaking during takes.
One of the points of difference I find with Beastwars is their use of distortion. Unlike a lot of modern metal bands the guitar doesn’t always carry the distortion. For many tracks on ‘Blood Becomes Fire’ it’s the bass, while the guitar remains relatively dry and clean, providing more clarity than the average metal band, so those big riffs they are known for really jump out at you. It’s similar to a lot of Black Sabbath tracks.
The tracks are so heavy because of the way they are composed and arranged, coupled with the lyrics and Hyde’s delivery – as opposed to by means of a wall of distortion – although there is, of course, plenty of that too.
They’ve achieved a powerful balance between sonic heaviness and songwriting. As the album comes towards a close, with the penultimate track Shadow King, you begin to feel that the band have really found themselves. Grinding bass and pounding drums carry the track like a thunderous rapture before closing track The Sleeper (the longest on the record) drives the gloomy context home, building from guitar arpeggio and almost spoken word to chugging guitars to full blown howling before finishing with the lines, ‘Oh, the children scream, Oh, the land is old, scarred.’
Beastwars say they could have released this album last year but due to the re-release of their debut overseas decided to wait and let a few more people find them before dropping ‘Blood Becomes Fire’.
The four-piece continue to be self-managed even after all their 2011 success, though they have help with promotions and distribution by Universal NZ. It’s impressive just how many high profile support slots they’ve managed to rack up with metal heavyweights like Melvins, High On Fire, Kyuss Lives!, Helmet, Fu Manchu and Black Cobra. The just announced Unida trans-Tasman support this May will mean the band’s first trip over to Australia.
“We book our own shows, for better or worse we manage everything,” says Hickey. “It’s like having three full times jobs. Manage the touring and the normal band work and your day job. We don’t do the whole lot ourselves and we have help with publicity, so we don’t have to go and beg for magazine interviews and whatever else. We’ve actually been approached for most of those supports, but the Kyuss one. That was before anybody knew who we were and I heard they were coming and that was just my focus, I had a one-track mind that we were gonna get that support.”
“And that one definitely opened up the others after,” Hyde adds.
As well as playing support slots, Beastwars have successfully toured the country in their own style, selling out shows from Auckland to Dunedin. Metal gigs here typically mean five metal bands in a row while it’s not uncommon to go to an indie show and find alt-country acts lined up next to electro. Beastwars have gone against that metal community trend and are known for putting on eclectic nights of varying music.
“It just gives a different feel for the evening. Also the audience gets to hear music that they might not see or get to hear otherwise,” says Hyde.
“We like supporting bands that we see talent in, letting them come along and play to a few new people, adds Hickey. “I just want to put on line ups ands shows that I would pay to see myself. We’ve also started asking people in their hometowns what they would like to see and we’ve had a huge response to that which is great.”
What’s clear to me is that Beastwars’ success is not just about their music, it’s also about their attitude, work ethic and the people they choose to work with. They have a solid idea of what they want to achieve when they write, record and tour and thanks to their close working relationships with Cotton and artist Nick Keller (arguably the fifth and sixth members of the band) they can make it happen with the style and finesse that has become a trademark. They have a sound, they have an aesthetic and they have a devoted fan base waiting to support them every step of the way. The 100 blood red vinyl copies will be snapped up for sure.
Nick Keller’s oil on canvas original won Beastwars the 2011 Best Artwork Tui and he has outdone himself with the art for this record. Metal bands and their artwork have a special relationship that you rarely find in other forms of music. Megadeth have Vic Rattlehead, Iron Maiden have Eddie the Head and bands like White Zombie, Metallica and the more contemporary Mastodon are closely linked to their artwork and logos. As the band have grown so has their relationship with these people and the progression shows in the recording and the packaging and presentation of Beastwars.
“I’m really proud of the music taking a step forward on this album but so has the artwork. Nick had a short break from his work at Weta and he’s been spending time doing fine art and portraits and I really think it comes through on the cover. Like I love the first album artwork but it’s almost cartoony compared to the new one – it’s a really strong visual step,” says Hickey.
“The more you can give him the more you get back. We had a big discussion about it, more just ideas than an album cover, and I think he’s done an amazing job. It’s quite inspiring just going into the studio and seeing all this work. He comes to the shows, he was at the last one drunk hugging us. (He doesn’t normally do that.) He’s quite an eccentric man. He’s a very mellow, very relaxed guy, it’s quite funny seeing him having a great night,” explains Hyde.
The most important aspect of these relationships that goes a long way to explaining how they all come together so well is that it isn’t just business. It’s friends coming together to creatively express an idea in their own way, as Hickey admiringly tells of Keller’s eccentricities.
“What’s cool about Nick is that he buys all our t-shirts, we put him on the door for every gig and he comes and pays anyway, we tell him we’ll give him a free record and he’ll still go out and buy it.”
Listening to ‘Blood Becomes Fire’ and thinking after our talk about who I could compare Beastwars to musically, it dawned on me that they’ve crossed that line. They no longer need to be compared to bands from the US or the UK because they have their own sound, their own way of doing things. They are Beastwars from Wellington, NZ, and they rule.