[17 April 2013]
New Zealand four-piece Beastwars may be based in a far-flung corner of the globe, but its thunderous voice has reached well beyond its homeland. The band’s hulking self-titled 2011 debut found plenty of success at home (including multiple award nominations), but also met with considerable acclaim in Europe, and drew plenty of enthusiastic reviews when it was re-released in North America in 2012. Beastwars spilled over with thickset sludge riffs, wrapped in Antipodean ire. The album’s towering cliffs of doom and noise-rock – along with its Herculean vocals – proved that Beastwars wasn’t going to allow its geographic remoteness to limit the dimensions of its sound, or its creative ambitions. If anything, being based in New Zealand seemed to encourage Beastwars to roar louder, for longer –delving into dark themes that reverberated with all of us.
As potent and brawny as Beastwars’ debut was, the band’s sophomore release, Blood Becomes Fire, is even better. While stylistically familiar, the new album represents a confident step forward in its sonic and narrative aesthetic. Blood Becomes Fire is imaginative, dynamic, and hits like a staggering punch to the solar plexus. If Beastwars doesn’t find more global success with Blood Becomes Fire, it won’t be for lack of inventiveness or determination. The album’s pulverizing percussiveness is built to smash borders to smithereens, and should rightly be seen as a significant release for fans of heavy music in 2013.
It makes perfect sense, given its neck-snapping dirty hooks, to label Beastwars’ creations as sludge metal. However, to classify Beastwars as solely a metal band doesn’t do justice to the depths of cacophony on offer. The band makes a dense racket – with cavernous tones and abrasive noise up-front – and there’s an abundance of metal momentum to Blood Becomes Fire.
Yet, plenty of other moods are injected into the aggression. Guitarist Clayton Anderson’s riffs teeter on the edge of chasms of distortion as he carves jagged, groove-laden channels. Nathan Hickey’s driving percussion sets a propulsive, martial meter. James Woods’ ceaselessly quaking bass rumbles belligerently throughout, and vocalist Matt Hyde howls prophetically over all. The result is an intensely metallic album, but in Blood Becomes Fire’s downtuned dirges there’s a fierce alchemy at work, with the band drawing on elements from a raft of musical potions – albeit all of them toxic.
Album opener, “Dune” is a dissonant, tumbling riot, with a grimy, squirming melody worming within. Woods’ bass provides the foundation, Anderson’s riffs sculpt the framework, and Hickey’s drumming hammers the quarrelsome tenor home. The same rhythmic device carries through to the visceral lurch and thrust of “Imperium” – where Hyde speaks of black ships, tombs of sand, and ominous, burning branches. In that burly, molasses-thick sound, which reflects our primal fears, you’ll hear why Beastwars has been compared to a mix of early High on Fire and Mastodon.
However, you’ll also find murk-ridden psychedelia in the cyclical melody of “Tower of Skulls”, and an unorthodox, roiling swagger on “Realms”, with both songs displaying the eccentric dramatics that Beastwars provides. The hallucinatory riffs, rousing chorus, and stop/start stomp of “Caul of Time” have a lot in common with the Melvins at their speediest, as they do with the Jesus Lizard, or early Soundgarden. Amp-Rep noise features prominently in the grinding, cold-hearted riffs of “Shadow King”, and while dark, NOLA-esque sludge plays its part, tracks such as “Ruins” and “Blood Becomes Fire” writhe in acid-soaked avant-rock. All, of course, drowns in a swamp of crust, with choruses blazing through feedbacking amps.
Blood Becomes Fire is manifestly hefty and grimy, but such moods are not the privilege of metal alone. Clearly, Blood Becomes Fire falls into metal’s orbit for a number of very good reasons, but its lineage is just as informed by the Swans, Joy Division, or even Amebix. Beastwars is indebted to a long line of artists (loud or otherwise), but the band has run its influences through the mill, resulting in an album that is artistically distinct. You can certainly label Beastwars a sludge metal band, but you might just as well throw in death-rock, post-punk, grunge, and noise-rock too. Nothing is easily quantifiable here, and Blood Becomes Fire is all the better for it. Blood Becomes Fire is the sound of four artists working in unison, driving that volatility and capriciousness for the purgative benefit of both band and audience.
Special mention has to be made of vocalist Matt Hyde. Not to diminish the contributions of the rest of the band, but Hyde’s hurricane-strength intensity is one of the prime reasons for Beastwars’ success thus far. He is simply one of rock’s great frontmen. In the live setting he is a man possessed – leaning over the crowd, arms raised, calling down the gods – and on Blood Becomes Fire he’s on equally fervent form. Hyde barks with guttural gruffness one minute and croons like Satan’s own soul-stealing preacher the next. Menace and red-raw emotionality sit behind his vocals, and at his most subdued Hyde still sounds like a man in a serious amount of existential pain.
On Beastwars’ debut, the band explored the impending end of days; on Blood Becomes Fire, Hyde looks upon the resulting ruination though the eyes of a traveler from another time – one who is pondering his own demise. As a lyricist, Hyde drew inspiration from tales of empires falling, ancient alien theories, and the trials of his own life to construct a concept album that’s both a reflection on our world’s end and an investigation into our own mortality. Strip away all the heaviness, and you’ll find grim, age-old fables.
On two of Blood Becomes Fire‘s absolute highlights, “Riverman” and “The Sleeper”, Hyde is in stunning storytelling form. Cleaner vocals mix with fiercely impassioned howls on both songs, and the weight of Hyde’s missives is keenly felt in the messianic kinetics. Interlinking narratives feature in both songs (death, water, doom) to form part of the larger portentous tale, and Hyde has never sounded more confident in his vocal delivery and lyrical strength – confronting what are perhaps his own deepest fears.
Of course, Hyde is not alone in sounding self-assured when tackling eternal themes of life, death, disease, and the folly of war and religion. Beastwars explores the wreckage of such issues with a pugnacious and monstrous sound. Indulging in the chaos is undoubtedly a key element of the band’s appeal, but it uses its sonic ordnance to contemplate the complexities, contradictions, and fears that often govern our lives, not to surrender to them. Beastwars may well be harsh, dirty, and mean, but it’s smart enough to realize that the noise need not obscure the sting in the tale.
Given the inroads Beastwars made with its first full-length, it could have followed the exact same path on its second, and the response would no doubt have been positive. Instead, Blood Becomes Fire has encompassed a wider spectrum of influences and ideas. However, the band wisely chose to record again with producer Dale Cotton (HDU), and the sound Cotton captures here is not so dissimilar to HDU’s recording with Steve Albini, being raw, direct and colossal. Also retuning is California-based John Golden on mastering duties, and award-winning Weta Workshop conceptual artist Nick Keller – who provides the stunning, otherworldly gatefold artwork as he did on Beastwars’ debut.
Comparing Beastwars to other bands has become increasingly difficult with the arrival of Blood Becomes Fire. References to High on Fire’s impetus, Conan’s heave and sway, or even the ritualized assault of Atriarch might mark a familiar point or two, but Beastwars has truly found a vitriolic sound all of its own making on album number two. The band’s “obey the riff” maxim rings loud in the grinding churns and blood-curdling, astringent descents, and while its debut proved that it can do “loud” exceptionally well, Blood Becomes Fire‘s exploration of new sonic and narrative territories is equally as memorable – and altogether more caustic and strident.
Blood Becomes Fire will undoubtedly be placing high on many end-of-year lists in 2013. The 10 songs present unrelenting, graphic visions of ruin and despair, and Hyde’s snarls and growls bring the essential emotional mass. Beastwars has mutated into something darker and more infectious on the new album, and its songs work their way even deeper into the psyche. What comes next for Beastwars is obviously in the hands of the rock gods, but the band demands your attention with Blood Becomes Fire. It’s in your best interests to pay heed, because, if Beastwars’s apocalyptic predictions are correct and we’ve reached the end of days, you’ll have the perfect soundtrack.