NZ Metal Album Of The Year: Beastwars Sermonize

I’m calling it. The debut album from Wellington’s Beastwars is the best NZ metal release in 2011. It’s been a great year for the band ever since their riotously unhinged and critically acclaimed self-titled album went straight into the national charts following its release in May—a generally unheard of feat for an NZ band that’s so overtly metal.

Beastwars have gone on to share stages with international acts such as the Melvins and High on Fire, been fortunate in having a beer brewed in their honor—with some incredible label art—and they were nominated in the ‘Best Rock Album’ category at the NZ Music Awards. There’s been an award given out for Nick Keller’s amazing gatefold LP artwork, and the band’s video for “Lake of Fire” perfectly captured the palpability of their live shows. To say the band has captured the hearts of NZ’s metal fraternity would be an understatement; Beastwars have collected souls.

The band, consisting of Matt Hyde on vocals, Clayton Anderson on guitar, James Woods on bass and Nathan Hickey on drums, served up a thoroughly disheveled debut that was spilling over with impassioned, antediluvian sludge. Indebted to ’90s noise-rock, and classic Amp-Rep and NOLA progenitors, it intertwined end-times philosophizing with some Lovecraftian terror and had plenty of dirty hooks to drag you along. Setting their lyrical vitriol against a wall of lethargic riffs the band brewed up some of the finest sonic alchemy heard in 2011. Balancing their abundant might with tentative, tantalizing restraint, Beastwars unleashed the fiery bursts where needed, but were equally skilled at pulling back from the precipice and teetering on the edge of a very dark void.

The atmosphere the band displayed on their debut was crushing. Foreboding, and layered in saturnine atmospherics, it was equal parts desolate, prophetic and ominous. Juggernaut tracks like “Damn the Sky”, “Lake of Fire”, and “Call Out the Dead” wasted no time on subtleties, and throughout the album the band solidified its molasses-thick, claustrophobic grooves with plenty of distorting propulsive riffs set around Matt’s intense snarls and growls. Recorded in four days, and sounding all the more fervent for it, Beastwars oozes confidence and aptitude.

Enshrouding the listener in a cathartic mix of primeval howls, the album reeked of anguish, evoking a real sense of shared pain and the remembrance of heartbreaking failures and abortive expectations. Even its muted, more temperate passages, such as those found on “Mihi”, and the perfectly archaic “Cthulhu”, provided an abundance of fevered crescendos. The album’s consistently haunting themes revealed an outfit working together in genuine (dis)harmony, unafraid to highlight the eternal inconsistencies and conflicts of our own human nature. Every wail, every riff, every bass thump and every cymbal crash served to remind you that this was, above all else, enigmatic and darkened metal, straight from the murky heart of the Antipodes.

It was a real pleasure to have the opportunity to ask drummer Nato and vocalist Matt about how the band views such a successful year.

Your debut was released back in May and it’s had resoundingly positive press since. Not that the album isn’t thoroughly deserving of all that praise, but were you guys surprised at how well it’s done in terms of sales and critical/fan success?

Nato: Seriously, we were blown away with the nice things that people wrote about us, and how the album seemed to connect with a number of people. It was kind of strange for us because we had no idea that people would be into it, and had absolutely zero aspirations to be a ‘popular’ band. We were just making this weird heavy music purely for our own enjoyment. Maybe we just have good taste, ha ha!

Matt: The only indicator at that time, and maybe this was a sign of what was to come, was when I had finally finished my vocal tracks I walked down the hill to the Dunedin Art Gallery and was confronted with an exhibition of these massive portraits of crowd scenes at rock concerts. It seemed too strange, but I told myself it was only a coincidence. Strange things can happen it seems.

Beastwars has received a lot of coverage in the press this year, certainly more than many NZ metal bands usually get. Has being under the spotlight been a learning curve for you all or have you taken all the attention in your stride?

Matt: I had become so used to playing music in obscurity that it was very strange to see five-star reviews and photos of live shows. It felt like some crazy wave that we had no control over. It can just as easily crash us on the rocks as carry us higher.

Nato: We know we’ve been really lucky, and we are just enjoying the attention while it lasts. We keep telling ourselves that next year we’ll be last year’s band. And that doesn’t bother us too much at all.

One of the greatest aspects of the album is that it’s got longevity. It has a sense of being an album in complete terms. People are still talking about it now, still discovering it months after its release. That speaks volumes for the overall quality of the album, but was that something you were aware of when you were recording?

Nato: We went in with a pretty clear idea of what we wanted to create, but what we came out with was slightly different—it’s a bit more ‘hyper-real’ or something. I think Dale Cotton, who produced it, worked us very hard for the short amount of time we had to record it, and that energy comes across. We recorded three extra songs that didn’t make it onto the album. Not because they weren’t good songs but because we wanted to create a cohesive body of songs that all worked together. “Lake of Fire” was written specifically to fill a gap that we thought was missing. “Cthulhu” was too, it was basically a rough demo that I had and we just played out in one take in the studio. Matt adlibbed the vocals on the spot, and then we got drunk and did some overdubs—plugging guitars directly into pre-amps and blowing them up, and tuning the bass so low that the strings just flopped against the pick-ups.

The video for “Lake of Fire” was something that really struck a chord with me this year. The album itself has a sense of real exuberance, but for anyone who hasn’t seen the band live, the video captures you brilliantly in full cathartic, ritualised mode. Can you tell me a little about what went on with the making of the clip?

Nato: We were really happy with how that video turned out. The show that it was filmed at was absolutely insane; I thought that the front rows were going to break their ankles from being surged into the knee-high stage. In terms of making the clip it was a real last minute idea to do it, we just had three or four friends turn up with little Canon 5D cameras and they sat on the stage with us while we played.

Matt: I think the video worked so well because we returned to the Mighty Mighty where we first built our audiences. The show sold out quickly and it was like the crowd was high just on everyone coming together. Once the music started I’m not sure who was in control, them, us, or the sky. There was a great southerly beginning to blow that night that brought snow to Wellington the next day. All these things played a part.

A Beastwars gig is more than simply a show for many fans. It’s a rite, a ceremony—with the band delivering the sermon, and the crowd responding in kind. After all the gigs you’ve done, what does the live show mean to Beastwars?

Matt: At first I thought we went in to do battle with ourselves, then it became about doing battle with myself. Then I tried to search for the darkness and the light, all having differing results. I can’t work it out. You can be left with feelings of connecting, feeling triumphant, but then it can be absolute solace. Every show is different.

You’ve had the opportunity to share the stage with some mighty international acts this year, was that a bit of a dream come true? Did you get a chance to mingle with some of your world-famous peers?

Nato: Yeah we have been really lucky to play with some great bands. The Melvins/High on Fire show was a weird time because they had been in Christchurch when the big earthquake hit and only managed to get to the Auckland show 30 minutes before they were due on stage. Buzz was understandably affected by the whole situation, but he was still a cool friendly dude. I think anyone who plays this kind of music is going to be pretty cool and laid back.

You’ve set about touring the album a few times this year and there seems to be a real mix of younger and older fans coming along. Are you aware yourselves of the cross-generational fandom the band has inspired?

Matt: The cross generation of fans is what I’m most proud of.

Nato: I think maybe the music reminds some older people of some stuff they have liked in the past and it may seem new to the younger guys.

The album was recorded quickly. Personally, that is something I treasure about it because it retains a strong sense of rawness and energy, but looking back now, is there anything you’d change about the debut?

Nato: No! Nothing at all. I can still listen to it and enjoy it and I’m sure that will always be the case. It’s a document of who and where we were at the time. I’m really proud of it.

I’ve read a lot of international reviews this year for the album—it seems many music writers are aware of and highly impressed with the album. Everyone I’ve pointed to the “Lake of Fire” video has been hugely impressed. What’s your impression of the international response?

Nato: We’ve had some people write some great reviews, and it’s really humbling when you know the music you love is getting appreciated by other people, no matter where in the world they’re from. All we can hope to do is keep writing music that we dig, and maybe we’ll get to play live to those people one day in the future. This band has always been about doing things just for us. Whether it was releasing the album on vinyl because that’s how we wanted to hear it ourselves, or putting together line-ups on our tours with the bands that we would pay to go see ourselves. I think if we keep on doing the things that make us happy then hopefully that can take us to that next level.

Beastwars at Bandcamp (essential purchase, obviously)

Beastwars on Facebook

Beastwars live in session videos can be found here and here (well worth checking out)

Nick Keller artworks