In their native New Zealand, the four-piece Beastwars have shared the stage with the likes of Helmet, High on Fire and the Melvins. Their self-titled, self-released debut (rightly) won a New Zealand Music Award for best artwork for its two gorgeous gatefold paintings – inside and outside – by Nick Heller, and the record itself is a finalist for “Best Rock Album.” They’ve sold out shows, will play the 2012 Big Day Out fest, and even have their own beer on the way. It’s a long list of accomplishments for a band just releasing their first record, but damned if Beastwars’ Beastwars doesn’t stand up to the quality, taking the less-explicitly Southern elements of early Alabama Thunderpussy’s crunchy riffing and injecting it with some Voivod-type dangerousness and grunge-based moody swagger in its quiet moments. Beastwars – vocalist Matt Hyde (not the recording engineer), guitarist Clayton Anderson, bassist James Woods (not the actor) and drummer Nathan Hickey – balance accessibility with an underground mindset. Their songs are deceptively catchy, and they hone in on riff rock without ever completely giving way to the conventions of the genre. Hell, on the airy, late-arriving “Cthulhu,” they border on Radiohead’s pre-indulgence ‘90s radio days. Their spectrum is broad, but the sound consistent, and they work well within the contrast of the two.
“Damn the Sky” launches Beastwars with an immediate emphasis on chugging groove. Anderson’s riff is familiar but not necessarily easy to place (other than at the feet of Erik Larson) and Hyde – who now has a whole album of standout performances under his belt – moves seamlessly from a drawling, marbles-in-mouth verse to a throaty, whiskey-style chorus, and for a moment, that seems to be the breadth he’s going to work with, until “Lake of Fire” sees the adoption of a snarl reminiscent of Denis “Snake” Bélanger, and all bets are off. It’s appropriate to the song, which also reminds of Voivod (though perhaps a thickened Voivod thanks to Woods’ burly tone), and a smart way of revealing the various ways Beastwars can hurt: One at a time, but still all at once. With “Mihi” and “Daggers,” they unveil their ‘90s-style noise rock crunch, particularly on the latter reminding of the last Unsane record but still managing to eek an identity of their own out of the song. If you’re the nodding type, you’ll nod. If you’re the punch-in-the-face type, I’ll stand further away. A lead from Anderson keeps skillful time with the rhythm section for the bridge and only enhances the groove leading back to the chorus, and though they’re basically working with the same verse-chorus-etc. formula throughout the nine tracks, Beastwars use structure to their advantage. Centerpiece cut “Call Out the Dead” is among the most menacing, with a lurching bass-led groove and madman howls and growls from Hyde. Length-wise, it fits with the rest of the cuts – six of the nine are between four and five minutes, and the others aren’t outlandishly far off that mark – but it’s a standout for what the foursome do with that time.
As Beastwars’ second half commences with “Red God,” the band again takes a turn toward the Southern and riff-based. It’s the shortest song at 2:50, and it’s halfway over by the time it’s begun, but Beastwars once again carefully move between drunken aural nastiness and heavy rock guitar. Woods’ bass shines here as it did on some of the noisier cuts preceding, and proves to be a major factor in the overall success of the album, sticking a heavy low end beneath the more open feel of the record’s most sullen songs, “Iron Wolf” and the aforementioned “Cthulhu.” He’s got his work cut out for him keeping the strumming guitars and Hyde’s paean poetry grounded on the verses of “Iron Wolf,” but Hickey does a good job laying a foundation for the chorus to build on, and he and Woods prove all the more effective in working together in the song’s second half, when it seems like the guitars are almost in a separate place doing start-stops to contrast what’s happening with the percussion and low end. “Iron Wolf” isn’t quite foreboding, and I think maybe it’s supposed to be, but it does work as a setup for “Cthulhu,” on which prominent drums echo and Hyde again takes to the drawl he established earlier in the record. He plays the crazy vocalist well, and is complemented by Anderson’s buzzing lead work, but where “Cthulhu” really distinguishes itself is in the fact that the song has virtually no payoff. It’s flat from a structural standpoint, whereas there was some build element to “Iron Wolf.” That’s not a complaint – if anything it’s a boon to Beastwars, since they pull it off. Ending with lone guitar strumming, it makes the transition back into straight-ahead pummel for closer “Empire” all the more striking.
It’s less a branching out at the last minute than an affirmation of what’s come before it, but “Empire” is a suitable closer for Beastwars’ first outing nonetheless, and a splash of melody in Anderson’s guitar goes a long way. The band show a clear grasp on their sound – a mature grasp, I’d say – throughout these tracks, and if nothing else, the convincing delivery of the performances on all fronts makes Beastwars worth checking out for anyone wanting something under the heavy rock umbrella that isn’t definitively one subgenre or another. The album’s case is also greatly aided by the fantasy artwork, which in the gatefold vinyl format looks like it should be a poster on the wall of every teenage boy the world over. Nick Heller, whose worked before with Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, did excellently playing up an epic side of the band visually while also evoking the fact that there are so many elements at play in what they do. It’s beautiful and definitely worth noting as yet another example of the professionalism and brashness Beastwars put into their craft. Their debut may have already left a mark on their homeland, but these songs prove that Beastwars could easily reach well beyond the borders of any one country.