I’VE GOT THIS friend who is a bit of a connoisseur of the contemporary song form. He rates everything from J-Pop phenomenon Baby Metal to James Blake to Wellington group Beastwars. He reckons modern song is in a state of crisis, and that Beastwars are the only New Zealand band worth bothering about in 2016.
I’ve played The Death Of All Things three times, and I wouldn’t describe the songs as catchy, but my connoisseur friend insists that I persist, because eventually, he says, the songs emerge through those giant riffs.
My problem with this instruction is that a little Beastwars goes a long way. Like a load of metal, punk and heavy alt-rock bands before them, Beastwars’ mighty machinery is at its most impactful at the start of a listening session, because I soon start feeling fatigued by the relentless assault. So, in a nutshell, listening to The Death Of All Things a fourth time to try to get to the heart of the songs just isn’t an option.
Part of it’s the fact that I’m an old fart with old ears, and I just can’t handle the kind of sonic warfare dished up here over the long haul. But part of it is the boredom that sets in through the predictability of the same old tropes. There’s a sound you expect with that kind of apocalyptic artwork and with the kind of pseudo-Biblical imagery of the lyrics, most of which paint a negative picture of the world.
Beastwars do, however, bust loose from many of those tropes. Part of the time, Matt Hyde manufactures a strangulated epiglottal vocal effect that perhaps aims to roar like Motorhead’s Lemmy or Killing Joke’s Jaz Coleman, but ends up sounding like The Cult’s Ian Astbury having a big spew after a long night on the turps. That’s a recommendation, kind of. The rest of the time, Hyde sings in a ‘normal’ voice, which gives the band permission to stop sledging us over the head for a minute and go get all moody on us.
The great thing about Beastwars is that even though they mostly play it slow – which gives pride of place to those giant riffs – they’re neither sludge nor alt-metal like Soundgarden. In other words, within the pantheon of alt-metal, they’ve made their own space. In fact, I could easily imagine them on a bill with other individualistic NZ alt-rock bands like Blow-era Straitjacket Fits or Thermos-era Bailter Space. Like those two bands, Beastwars know how to build a riff, but thanks to advanced studio technology, it’s like the texture of their monumental sound has a giant magnifying glass exposing every detail. And that sonic architecture is elemental, just like watching a mountainside from a birds’ eye view with all its dramatic detailing.
My favourite song is ‘Holy Man’, and that’s because it has a distinct change of tempo at the least expected moment, and proceeds to the end with a mean groove. I guess that’s what I wanted more of: they could have evolved to be a band that utilized the dynamic contrasts prevalent in the progressive-rock era without being pompous. The one acoustic song (with flute!), ‘The Devil Took Her’, also shows a side of the group that perhaps could have been explored.
I think it’s probably apt that Beastwars is calling it a day after three albums. With a name like that they would have been forever trapped into a style that they’re probably outgrowing. Perhaps they’d consider re-forming with a new name and an open stylistic template? GARY STEEL
Music = 3.5/5
Sound = 4/5
[Note: Gary Steel reserves the right to reappraise and alter his star ratings up or down at any time].