by Chris Familton
Beastwars are something of a musical anomaly in that a group of men in their late thirties arrived seemingly fully formed on the Wellington scene before releasing their debut self-titled LP and rapidly building a strong, nationwide fanbase. The musical allegiance of their fans in the metal scene isn’t a surprise as devotees of the hard, fast and heavy dictum are notoriously passionate followers. What made the Beastwars story all the more interesting was their infiltration of the mainstream media in the form of award shows, TV and radio exposure.
There was the hope that the first record wasn’t the full extent of their songwriting capabilities, a lifetime culmination of their combined musicality. That fear is allayed instantly with their sophomore release Blood Becomes Fire, a supercharged slab of metal that cuts a swathe across many of its myriad sub-forms, chewing them up and angrily spitting them out as bludgeoning musical statements.
The opening jackhammer riff of Dune makes it instantly clear that the band hasn’t decided to mellow and explore post rock or prog metal diversions. They hit the ground running and they don’t let up for three minutes of churning Tool-like sludge metal. Imperium takes a step back in speed but ratchets up the intensity and in the process shows doffs its cap to the influence of early Shihad in the brittle chopped up chords and that semi-industrial bass churn. The defining moment of the song comes at the 3:38 where you are left in no doubt that Matthew Hyde is one of New Zealand’s finest exponents of visceral throat shredding as the music momentarily eases and he unleashes a spine tingling guttural bellow that sounds like the aural equivalent of a tortured soul desperately baying for redemption. Hyde isn’t just a screamer though, he shows restraint and variation at various points on Blood Becomes Fire, a key to ensuring that the album doesn’t drain and exhaust the listener by rote of its relentless intensity.
Economy is a key to why Blood Becomes Fire maintains its presence across its ten tracks. Only the last song exceeds five minutes and generally they work within standard rock song parameters of verses, choruses, middle eights, breakdowns and build ups. Beastwars also display a wide range of influences, albeit through subtle means. There are nods to everything from Alice In Chains and Soundgarden, the lesser prog tendencies of Tool, the classic demonic industrial metal of Ministry and Godflesh, the punk/hardcore intensity of bands like Refused and the intergalactic stoner rock of Kyuss. They have ultimately figured out how to combine all those disparate influences into their own cohesive and succinct brand of heavy music. Moments like the sci-fi metal intro to Shadow King, the melodic interplay of The Sleeper and the almost Gordons-esque bass at the start of Ruins show that the band and engineer/producer Dale Cotton have worked hard to build in those small, often surprising elements that lift the album well above the plethora of metal releases trying to out-muscle each other.
Thematically there are a bunch of typical metal signifiers at work on Blood Becomes Fire – from death, redemption and judgement to apocalyptic dread. In lesser hands they can become cartoonish but via Hyde’s vocal cords and the ruthless playing of Clayton Anderson, Nathan Hickey and James Woods they create an entirely self sufficient world of physical and emotional death, destruction and the vagaries of mortality. Often it is difficult to hear what Hyde is singing/screaming but the band more than make up for any loss of literal interpretation by shading the music with light, dark, intimate and epic shapes as required.
Blood Becomes Fire is a hugely impressive album that many hoped for but not all expected. The band have built on their strengths almost perfectly, never once over-stretching themselves or resorting to filler to flesh out the record. The world stage beckons and is probably a given in a genre of music where its best exponents generally rise to the top regardless of where they hail from. Beastwars’ mantra is ‘Obey The Riff’ and though they have bent, abused, reconfigured and honoured it they haven’t for a second lost sight of its power and importance.
this review was first published on Under The Radar