Written by: AP on 22/02/2020 09:28:19

It is often said that in a certain way, heavy metal descends from classical music. But while it has traditionally been the symphonic metal genre that has sought to provide the arguments, with keyboard arrangements that mimic the dark bombast of composers such as Wagner, it is Apocalyptica who really make the suggested bond seem credible. Armed with nothing but four cellos, the Helsinki-born quartet immortalised themselves in the annals of music history in 1996, by releasing eight stunning interpretations of classic songs by Metallica, and to this day, “Plays Metallica by Four Cellos” remains their most revered album. In fact, not everyone is even aware of the fact that, with this latest opus “Cell-0”, the Finns now have eight other full-length albums to their name, and since 2003’s landmark “Reflections”, all of these have exclusively featured original music. It was a landmark effort for a multitude of reasons: it was the first without lead cellist Max Lilja, it witnessed the band rise to the upper echelons of instrumental metal, and, for better or worse, it presaged the end of an era. Each subsequent album from the band included a number of guest vocalists, who helped Apocalyptica climb the charts and earn three consecutive gold certifications — but if you ask me, a lot of the mystery and magic that made the band such a revelation became lost in the process. And as such, I was delighted to discover that “Cell-0” was going to be their first full-fledged instrumental album in 17 years.

If you are skeptical about the idea of metal created (mainly) with cellos, then you are in for an epiphany cue the first track, “Ashes of the Modern World”. After its suspenseful, symphonic first half in which lead cellist Eicca Toppinen lays down some orchestral synths that, curiously, invoke later-era Dimmu Borgir, he and his cohort, Perttu Kivilaakso and Paavo Lötjönen, take a drastic turn and unleash a riff so heavy and eerie I had to double check whether my playback had shuffled to the bridge in Slayer’s “Raining Blood” by accident the first time I heard it. Given the amount of distortion applied to each bow-stroke, it is virtually impossible to distinguish the sound of this riff, let alone the squealing solo that soon follows from something produced with a baritone electric guitar. Cello is already a difficult instrument to master in a classical setting, but to play it with such speed and imagination requires supreme talent. And Apocalyptica have it in droves, freely applying their skill to a variety of subgenera ranging from the thrash overtones of the opener to heavy and progressive metal, and even post-rock. The titular “Cell-0”, for instance, would not sound misplaced amongst Dream Theater’s repertoire, not only because of the way it evolves and unfolds in tune with the quartet’s train of thought, but also thanks to its dramatic tone, which both maintains tension and creates intrigue throughout its span. Keen ears will also notice the homage paid to Edvard Grieg’s 1875 piece “In the Hall of the Mountain King” just before the final crescendo, and considering that Apocalyptica did in fact interpret that very composition on their 2000 album “Cult”, it could be taken as an overt hint from the band that to they mean to retrace their roots on this album — at least to a certain extent.

But while “Cell-0” certainly has some resemblances to material from Apocalyptica’s early ‘00s period, it is by no means a pure retrospective endeavour. As well as the obvious classical touch, the four musicians draw inspiration in a myriad other places, too, with the plaintive “Fire & Ice” paying homage to the traditional folk music of the band’s ancestral home, and the likes of “Rise” and “Wildblood” both bowing at the cinematic school of shoegaze pioneered by Godspeed You! Black Emperor. I have often found that instrumental rock and metal bands have a tendency to meander around a single soundscape without a clear purpose or adherence to a central theme, which is something that a vocalist would usually be able to redeem somewhat. But Apocalyptica skilfully manoeuvre around this pitfall — first and foremost thanks to their willingness to visit so many different genres in order to ensure the music remains varied throughout, but also by virtue of one of the cellists almost always assuming the role of the frontman and playing leads with the intonation of singing. It is this technique that has enabled the Finns to produce faithful renditions of classics by Metallica and other bands, and it is what makes most of the tracks on “Cell-0” so memorable, to the extent that I would not put it past Apocalyptica’s fans to ‘sing’ along to them, as it were, in the live setting.

Let us zoom in on my deliberate usage of the word most just before, however. While it is undeniable that highlights like the resplendent closing piece “Beyond the Stars” aim straight for the crown of Apocalyptica’s repertoire, others content themselves with more modest ambitions, with the more metallic moments in particular often skewing this way somewhat to my surprise. It is not that the quartet have lost their touch in this regard, it is that they eclipse this unique selling point of old with astonishing post- and progressive rock symphonies that rival their famous take on “Nothing Else Matters”, and in which it is the richness rather than the heaviness of sound that provides the oomph. Nevertheless, the slightly uneven nature of “Cell-0” should not discourage you from listening to the best offering from Apocalyptica since the iconic “Reflections”, an album full of intrigues and suitable for many an occasion, from reading a good novel with a glass of red wine in your Chesterfield to raising your horns and headbanging along to in concert.


Download: Ashes of the Modern World, Rise, Call My Name, Beyond the Stars
For the fans of: Break of Reality, Carpe Noctem, Dream Theater, Nightwish
Listen: Facebook

Release date 10.01.2020
Silver Lining Music

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