When Apocalyptica appeared on the music scene in 1996 with Plays Metallica by Four Cellos, they were busting the lid off a new can. Their unique blend of heavy metal and cellos was something really remarkable and daring. What was hard to fathom was their target audience. Those that liked classical music would have shunned the recording as sacrilege, and fans of Metallica were a little bemused. Their debut highlighted all of the similarities between classical music and the brand of metal made popular by Metallica. The idea was simple, unconventional, and brilliant. Just take four cellos and some classical arrangements of Metallica tunes, record them, and release to the general public.
Worlds Collide is a different sort of record. It uses a somewhat more conventional approach, and is not really the better for it. Where before the band played it straight with acoustic instruments and no percussion, this album — with its drums and distorted cellos (sounding like guitars) — comes at you more like a rock band. Although this isn’t Apocalyptica’s first release to include drums (they have had a permanent drummer since 2005), one cannot help but feel that they’d be lost without them now. The addition of drums and distortion makes them a different band altogether. Rather than being (as they used to say) chamber musicians who happened to like metal, they have evolved into a metal band that happens to play cellos.
On first listen, the instrumentals on Worlds Collide are overshadowed by the tracks with vocals on them. It can be quite a struggle to keep your hands from the skip button as the tracks with vocal accompaniment sound so much more accomplished. This is where the transition between chamber metal musicians and metal band becomes problematic, as the instrumentals were really what the band used to be about. It would be a horrible shame if the vocal-free songs were avoided in favour of the somewhat (dare I say it) gimmicky tracks with guest stars on them.
Till Lindemann (Rammstein), Corey Taylor (Slipknot), Dave Lombardo (Slayer), and Cristina Scabbia (Lacuna Coil) all offered their musical services to this recording. Tomoyasu Hotei comes and goes almost unnoticed, while Lombardo could frankly be any drummer to the untrained ear, and Scabbia does a passable Evanescence impression. Only Lindemann offers anything that one might call different with his rendition of David Bowie’s “Heroes” in German (the song is credited as “Helden” on the album). On another day, this cover version could so easily have been cheesy, but not today — though I can’t help but smirk every time I hear the initial, earnest, and very guttural “Du”. That’s not to say that the guest spots are without value. Despite my earlier dismissive remarks, they do come over well. Flagship track “I’m Not Jesus”, featuring Corey Taylor, tackles the thorny subject of child abuse by priests, but it has a really catchy chorus to prevent it from burning in hell for all eternity. Re-recorded for the American release of the album, “I Don’t Care” with Adam Gontier (Three Days Grace) on vocal duties is equally memorable, even if it sounds like it’s been lifted from the next Spiderman soundtrack (that is to say, it sounds a bit like Nickelback). However, as commercial as these tracks are, the shift from the unusual to a regular rock band is palpable. Now that Apocalyptica have integrated aspects from “regular” rock music into their sound, what really sets them apart from every other metal band out there?
In the grand scheme of things, there is probably only so much one can do with heavy metal music (I’ll burn for that one). Apocalyptica began their career by marching to the beat of their own drum, but somehow the introduction of percussion has brought them into the mainstream. What they produce is still high-quality material, although ultimately not as groundbreaking as they were 12 years ago, and this is a shame. However, the introduction of mainstream elements and the use of guests from more established acts are likely to bring them new fans. Rather than converting their target audience, Apocalyptica have capitulated and headed for the mainstream.