Most people know the band Apocalyptica from their infamous, bold album Plays Metallica by Four Cellos, an album on which, you guessed it, the four Finnish cello prodigies offered their own unique interpretations of eight of Metallica’s classic tunes. The 1996 CD garnered a lot of notoriety at the time, partially as a novelty and most notably as a work that showed just how well classic metal lends itself to classical instrumentation, and deservedly so, as songs like “Master of Puppets” and “Enter Sandman” sounded just as powerful coming out of the F-hole of the cello as it does coming out of a massive Marshall stack. As is the case with such left-field experiments, people in North America tuned out Apocalyptica as quickly as they tuned the quartet in, rendering them one of the more quirky relics of ‘90s pop culture.
Unbeknownst to many, however, Apocalyptica has soldiered on in the decade since the Metallica covers disc, putting together a very respectable career that has bravely attempted to stretch the group’s musical boundaries. 1998’s Inquisition Symphony contained three original compositions among more metal covers, while 2000’s Path reduced the number of covers to three, and featured lead vocals for the first time. The foursome has become even bolder since then, subsequent albums containing percussion, effects such as distortion, and unique collaborations, from Soulfly’s Max Cavalera, the great Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo, and a most impressive duet with German eccentric Nina Hagen on a 2003 cover of Rammstein’s ballad “Seeman”. All the while, there has consistently been an audience for Apocalyptica in Europe, as the band has managed to transform their music into a strangely engaging live spectacle, something which has been documented in impressive fashion on the new concert DVD, The Life Burns Tour.
To see Apocalyptica onstage takes some getting used to. This isn’t a fancy concert hall they’re performing in, all dressed to the nines and playing politely for posh punters. What we get are four scruffy headbangers sawing away madly on their cellos in front of a raucous crowd in the big Stahlwerk club in Düsseldorf, Germany, featuring a stage show complete with all the metal bells and whistles, from dry ice, to gothic set design, to even pyro. It’s aggressive, it’s sweaty, and yet it’s often as gorgeous as one would expect four cellos to sound like.
The members of the band are certainly an eccentric bunch: you’ve got the blond-tressed, eyeliner-sporting Eicca Toppinen who flails his long hair like he’s playing electric guitar, the mohawked Paavo Lötjönen, rail-thin resident goth Perttu Kivilaakso who headbangs as furiously as any black metal axeman, and the shades-wearing Antero Manninen, who sits expressionless while his mates flail about. A big reason why the performance is so remarkably cohesive is the inclusion of a live drummer, who not only serves as the timekeeper of the whole set, but anchors the otherwise minimal sound, giving it the necessary punch needed for such a live venue. As a result, the Metallica standards absolutely cook, such as the intense “Creeping Death” “Fight Fire With Fire”, and a phenomenal run-through of “Master of Puppets”; original numbers also sound terrific, like the mid-set highlight of “Hope”, “Life Burns”, and “Fisheye”.
In fact, the way the band presents itself is astonishing; at times the guys are playing while carrying their upright cellos, confronting the audience at the edge of the stage like an intense guitarist. For all the aggression, we do get many glimpses of their softer side, as on the show-stopping cover of “Nothing Else Matters”. All the while, the crowd is with them every step of the way, clapping, cheering, and singing along to the Metallica tunes. By the time we’re through the draining 20 song set, what started off as something rather snigger-inducing has become a spectacle that keeps us glued to the screen.
As if the concert set wasn’t enough, we get a good helping of extras as well. There’s a brief documentary that chronicles the band’s 2005 tour, which included their first performances in North America, including some insane shows in Mexico, as well as six of their music videos, the highlight being the aforementioned collaboration with Nina Hagen. Proof that Apocalyptica is far from a one-album wonder, this DVD is guaranteed to let classical aficionados know there is more to metal music than noise and violence, and also will ensure none of us will ever look at the cello the same way ever again.