David James

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Why Panhead Custom Ales Is Getting Behind the New Zealand Music Industry

From backing heavy metal heavyweights to sponsoring some of the country's best live music spots, Panhead Custom Ales knows the strength of New Zealand music

Heavy metal fans disagree about a lot – it’s a vehemently territorial genre of music – but they all agree on one thing: obey the riff.

Each year, the outdoor mini-festival, Obey The Riff, takes to the place where Panhead Custom Ales are brewed. Each year, on the hallowed grounds of Panhead Brewery in Upper Hutt, some of New Zealand’s heartiest and heaviest bands showcase their powerhouse riffs and thundering vocals; if you happened to be in Wellington that day, you wouldn’t be surprised to hear the festival sounds arrive across the Harbour.

Local heavyweights Beastwars memorably headlined last year’s Obey The Riff, and one year later, they’re about to release a very Kiwi album. Earlier this month, Beastwars announced their new album, Tyranny of Distance, and it’s a work of impressive ambition.

Tyranny of Distance, which will be released this October, is a covers album spanning 40 years of New Zealand music: Beastwars have offered renditions of songs by Marlon Williams, The 3Ds, Nadia Reid, The Gordons and many more on the upcoming record.

Its eight songs are set to cover the common themes of “despair, loneliness and existential frustration”; they’ve also thrown in a song “recounting the story of an illicit drug-fuelled party” for good measure.

The origins of the covers album, as drummer Nathan Hickey told Rolling Stone AU/NZ, were entirely accidental. “After our New Zealand tour in 2021 we didn’t actually jam together or really hang out for about a year,” he says. “Then we were asked to contribute a song for a Soundgarden tribute album which we were all really excited about doing. We had such a good time reworking that song that an old idea that Matt (Hyde) had of covering “Dark Child” by Marlon Williams resurfaced – and then it just grew from there.”

Considering the depth and breadth of New Zealand’s musical history, narrowing down the covers album provided stressful. “We joked we should call this Tyranny of Distance Volume 1 as we all had so many songs that we would love to record,” Hickey laughs.

“We have never had any luck agreeing on covers in the past, so the only way we could make this work was if we all chose three songs that no other member could veto. The only rule was that you had to record a kick ass demo of it to prove it could be “Beastwarsified”, so the 12 songs we started with came down to a final eight that we were really happy with.

For Hickey, album opener “Identity” – originally performed by The Gordons – is a highlight. “It’s so intense and heavy – it’s like getting smacked in the face in a good way!

“Having Julia Deans sing on the first single “Waves” (originally by Superette) was also really special as she’s such a legend in New Zealand music.”

One thing’s certain: Beastwars are definitively not the sort of band that would align themselves with an unworthy sponsor. If brand infiltration of art is almost inescapable in 2023, the least you can do is make it work for your needs.

Make a movie for Mattel but make it a wicked reflection on feminist politics; headline a festival sponsored by a brewery if it allows heavy metal music to survive and thrive.

“Panhead has been absolutely invaluable to us as a band by sponsoring all our New Zealand and Australian tours over the last 10 years, and it’s no exaggeration to say this album wouldn’t exist without them,” Hickey assures. “We didn’t have the funds to pay to make this record ourselves, so I pitched them the concept of hot rodding some New Zealand songs and they loved the idea! They’ve all become such great friends over the years, we feel so lucky to have them backing us with everything we do.”

If Panhead’s support of Beastwars hints at its credentials, the brewery’s support of New Zealand’s live music scene confirms its belief. Panhead has partnered with venues such as Auckland’s Mothership, a burgeoning CBD spot housed in the grandest of buildings, and the always reliable Valhalla, a proper rock ‘n’ roll bar in Wellington.

Panhead has also worked alongside Waxstar Touring to promote international acts touring this country, and will once again sponsor the Rolling Stone Aotearoa Awards this year, which will be a night of live music celebrating the best in Kiwi music, from established icons like Six60 to fledgling talent like Georgia Lines.

As for Beastwars, fans can catch them on their national album tour this October, taking in stops in Hamilton, Lyttelton, and Dunedin.

“This tour is gonna be so good, not just because we have a new album of material but also because it’s the 10th anniversary of our second album, Blood Becomes Fire,” Hickey says. “We’re blowing the cobwebs off and planning on playing every song on the record. Kinda cool, kinda scary, but I’m very excited for it!”

Beastwars’ Tyranny of Distance is out Friday, October 13th (pre-save/pre-order here). Check out the new Beastwars Covers Album – Tyranny of Distance Mastered, a playlist by Beastwars on #SoundCloud.
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