Apocalyptica: When Metal Met the Cello

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Apocalyptica: When Metal Met the Cello
A full theater… A lonely chair… An expectant murmur in the audience… A heavy red velvet curtain
standing quietly behind the empty chair… A not so notable man walks in, dressed in quiet elegance but
without the wealth found in the garments of that snobbish noble audience. The quiet man stands before
his audience, cello in his right hand, bow in his left, and bows his head as the murmur turns into applause.
He sits, alone with his cello, center stage. He breathes deeply, closes his eyes and starts to play as the
audience watches and listens in admiration and respect…
Another full theater in another place… No velvet red curtain backdrop, no richly dressed audience, no
lonely chair… This time there are four eerie shaped thrones crowned by a set of drums on the smoky,
dark stage. The expectant audience is not seated, rather standing and murmuring excitedly as they wait
for the gig to begin. The stage goes even darker but the audience does not quiet, they start to applaud,
whistle and scream as one by one, four cello players and a drummer come on stage. All smiling, without
hesitation, they start to play a powerful melody, creating an even greater exhilaration among their
audience.
The first of these two concerts is an
imagined 18th century solo cello concerto
composed by Johann Sebastian Bach, The
Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello.
Beautiful and simple, but with great
technical variations, these masterpieces
engage the listener in a world of feelings
and sensations, at times joyful, at times
melancholic, but always calm and peaceful.
Some consider them one of Bach’s most
compelling and intimate pieces, and all in
the deep voice of a lonely cello.
The second of these two concerts is a true
experienced event in NYC’s Nokia Theater
in September 2008. All cello players in the
band have trained in classical music for years, however, they take the cello in other directions completely
different to Bach’s voice in his cello suites. Dressed in black, the cello players create bass, guitars and if
you listen carefully, the unheard voice of a singer. The melodies go from sweet and soft to harsh and
powerful, never leaving anyone indifferent to their sound. So who is responsible for this fusion of a
purely classical and deep sounding instrument with a genre as hard-hitting as metal? A Finnish band by
the name of Apocalyptica whose powerful style is best known as symphonic metal.
Although the cello first appeared in mid 16th century and heavy metal did not make its debut until the
‘70s, four centuries later, it was just time before their fusion would become a reality. And so it happened
in the early ‘90’s, four classical cello students, as well as great friends, decided to combine both of their
passions, metal and the cello. Remaining faithful to their two passions, Eicca Toppinen, Paavo Lötjönen,
Antero Manninen, and Max Lilja started playing heavy metal with their cellos. As cellist and founding
member Paavo Lötjönen explained to me in our first interview:
You know, it’s really a spontaneous thing. Even though we had been playing classical music since we
were six years old, we had been cello players for all our lives, but we liked rock music all the time. We
played it in school and in normal rock bands as well. I played bass, Perttu played the guitar and still
plays the guitar, and Eicca played the drums, so on the side we had also this rock attitude and rock love.
There was a six cello ensemble, which we played like Jimmy Hendrix, Tangos and that kind of (harder)
stuff compared to classical music. So maybe that idea came from that side, why not do some
arrangements with Metallica and Simple Descent. So Eicca did a couple of those and it was big fun and
we just played two times a year for three years in student parties, for our friends, and in music camps.
So we came step by step and really spontaneously, we didn’t have any plans to do any albums.
So the four friends doing what they most loved unexpectedly got discovered, as cellist, founding member
and creative mind of the band Eicca Toppinen has been quoted to say on their website:
We got to play at an after-Christmas party for metalheads at Teatro Heavy Metal Club in Helsinki in
1995. There were three other bands and every band was doing covers. It was one of the first shows when
HIM played. They were covering Type O Negative, we
were covering Metallica. It was really scary to go there
and play in front of metalheads. We didn't know what
was going to happen. We thought they might kill us! But
they really freaked out and had a great time. He (Kari
Hynninen, talent hunter present at this gig) called us
and asked us if we wanted to make an album. For
ourselves, we never thought we could make an album out
of what we were doing. It was just for fun, some therapy
away from practicing all those scales! So when the first
album was released, we didn't expect much. If it had sold
1,000 copies in Finland that would've been great, but it
sold over one million copies worldwide!
This was just the beginning. Coming up on their
seventeenth anniversary as Apocalyptica, they have toured all over the world, recorded six studio albums
and their reputation only continues to grow. They have not only evolved as musicians, but the band has
also suffered internal changes which do not seem to have had a negative effect on the band. Among the
more notable changes are: In 1996, Antero Manninen left the band, although he has continued to
collaborate as the fourth, supporting cello player on tour. Antero Manninen was replaced by Perttu
Kivilaakso. The second important change came in 2002 when another of the founding members, Max
Lilja, also left the band, leaving the band with only three cello players. And one of the most recent
changes happened in 2005 when drummer Mikko Sirén joined the band as a permanent member.
Although these changes always make for interesting gossip, what I feel is more important is the evolution
of Apocalyptica’s music, which has remained unique and powerful as it has gone through its own
changes album to album…
In 1996, three years after forming their cello quartet, they recorded their first studio album, Plays
Metallica by Four Cellos. Even if it was just an album of Metallica cover songs, as the title clearly
indicates, this was the album that opened the doors for Apocalyptica as a band. That same year they got
to tour hand in hand with their highly admired metal band, Metallica, during their Finnish tour. As Paavo
recalls with a look so bright it seemed it had just occurred only days ago:
It was the same year we had released our album, so we released the album in March or something like
that, and December or November of that same year we were already supporting Metallica. It was an
amazing thing for us! Two nights in Helsinki… Well, it’s… We couldn’t understand what happened to
us…
In 1998 they released Inquisition Symphony, their second studio album where they also included covers
by Faith No More, Pantera and Sepultura, as well as three original songs by the band. These three songs,
Harmageddon, M.B., and Toreador, proved that there was more to this cello quartet than just playing
covers.
Their next album, Cult, published in 2001, was a clear move to show everyone that covers were not
Apocalyptica’s only music option. In this album they included ten original songs, three covers and for
the first time, an Apocalyptica song with vocals, Path Vol. 2. The diversity of cello techniques and
sounds found in this album, create a powerful “first” original Apocalyptica album.
After being left as a cello trio, more than ever Apocalyptica wanted to succeed in their musical venture.
Prior to their fourth studio album, they had a revelatory encounter with legendary Slayer drummer, Dave
Lombardo, who showed them the possibilities for their creations by the addition of a second instrument,
the drums. In 2003, Reflections came out, their fourth studio album with Dave Lombardo as guest
drummer. It was a clear success since the drums added a new and fresh dimension to the cellos, making
the songs more powerful as well as having other songs that showed a softer, kinder side of Apocalyptica.
As their reputations continued to grow, they followed in 2005 with their fifth, self-titled, studio album,
featuring Mikko Sirén as a permanent band member. This album clearly shows an evolution in their
musical composition and techniques, but what is more interesting is that out of the fourteen titles found in
this album, six songs were accompanied by lyrics sung by guest metal vocalists. When I asked Paavo
and Mikko about the lyrics, here is what they told me:
Paavo: (In a deep, nonchalant voice) I don’t understand
anything about the lyrics.
Mikko: Basically most of the lyrics are done by someone else
than us. We are musicians and I think that’s the thing we are
best at. Somebody else comes up with them.
Paavo: Basically, those who have sung the lyrics, she or he
gets to stand behind the lyrics. And basically, those lyrics are
more for the singers, so we don’t have any. I have nothing to
do with the riddle of the lyrics!
Mikko: Of course, if there would be a lyric about something
we can’t stand behind, if somebody would sing something
utterly stupid, of course we can’t accept those kinds of songs, but we have the lyrics and somebody writes
them, then we check them through, and if everybody is happy and not ashamed of what somebody is
singing, then we can go on.
Their latest album, Worlds Collide, which debuted in 2007, reflects a darker side of Apocalyptica. At the
same time, they continue to show a growing talent in their music. Once again, many of their melodies are
accompanied by lyrics, many with a deep sense of feeling and thought.
Although they are far from the cello’s and their own beginnings, classical music, I think Eicca Tunnamen
best explains this relation between the two genres, classical and metal, when he states on his website:
There’s a primitivity to be found in both metal and classical music. It’s more hidden in classical music,
but it’s very powerful and strong. If you listen to the symphonies of Shostakovich, when he’s really going
hard it’s comparable to Pantera or Sepultura. Also, people in both worlds love good musicians.
So, when I close my eyes and listen to Apocalyptica, I can only think of how far the art of playing the
cello has evolved. After all, Bach did wonders with it back in the 18th century, but who is to say that if
alive today, Bach would not be an Apocalyptical composer? After all, nowadays, metal is the epiphany
of feelings and emotions, which is what Johann Sebastian Bach tried to convey in every one of his
pieces... Or, maybe, just maybe, Apocalyptica are the classic composers of our century, the modern day
Bachs…
Nerissa Alison
December 2009