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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Concert Review: Naked Crunch

Apocalyptica celebrate 20 years of Metallica covers--on cellos. 
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The gentlemen of Apocalyptica: (l.r.) Eicca Toppinen, Perttu Kivilaasko, Paavo Lötjönen and Antero Manninen
in their video for "Battery." Image © 2017 Apocalyptica.

Twenty years ago, I was in the Record Factory in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn on a Saturday afternoon. The clerk, Fred showed me something "new and weird" that had just come in. It was by a band called Apocalyptica and was titled Plays Metallica for Four Cellos. Skeptical, I flipped it over. And that was when I recognized Eicca Toppinen, the Finnish cellist who is the band's leader and who I had met when he was playing in New York with the new music ensemble Avanti! the year before. Anyway, I bought it.

I'm glad I did. Stripped down to four baritonal instrumental lines, Metallica's songs retained their chugging, crunching power. Also, the Apocalypticans were skilled enough to pull off Kirk Hammet's distinctive guitar solos as well as the whipsaw time changes that (today) remain a Metallica trademark. Eight songs long, the disc covered famous Metallica hits like "Enter Sandman" and "Sad But True" but delved into the rich early material, blazing through "Creeping Death" and "Master of Puppets" with gusto and glee. Other albums followed, each with original material and each excellent in its own way.

Apocalyptica are are currently celebrating the 20th anniversary of that first album with a North American tour featuring two sets of Metallica material, drawing from their parent band's first six albums. This tour (featuring Mr. Toppinen, band members Paavo Lötjönen and Perttu Kivilaasko and, returning for this tour:  Antero "Mr. Cool" Manninen) came to Town Hall on Monday night, a much needed dose of Metallica madness in the face of September 11th in New York City. It was at once low-key and high energy, with the cellists playing seated in the first half.

This was a run-through of that first album, starting with the chug of "Enter Sandman." Eicca Toppinen's cello met the vocal line perfectly, replacing the guttural growl of James Hetfield with a sweet, melodic tone. Absent a drummer, the  band got the crowd clapping along, but the first roars of audience participation came during "Master of Puppets." Although missing a verse (the band doesn't always play the same musical structure twice) the middle section was breathtaking, a bluesy harmony solo over a steady, rising plucked accompaniment. When this built to the rolling, locomotive roar of all four instruments, the effect was breathtaking.

"Creeping Death" was present, along with the trademark "Die!" chant which seemed to confuse some audience members who've never been to a Metallica show. Songs like "Harvester of Sorrow" (played slow) and "Sad But True" (played very fast) brought the thick Metallica crunch that makes fans (including this one) have sore necks the next morning. "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)" was terrifyingly quiet, building to a grand, operatic climax with the crazy fast final section. And then, intermission.

Halfway through second set opener "Fade to Black," the band was joined by drummer Mikko Siréb. His contribution was made on a customized ready-made kit: with metal drum shells made from the bends of air conditioner ducts, super-crash cymbals with holes in them to make a biting sound, and trash cans mounted in place of toms. The effect was completed by small cymbals with long brass sizzle swirls, but all this cacophonic percussion went with the crunching cellos like steak goes with creamed spinach. The band might consider working on music from Metallica's 2003 St. Anger: they certainly have the right drum kit.

Apocalyptica's song choices remained firmly conservative. The newest song played was "Until it Sleeps": itself now twenty-two years old. The oldest was one of the encores: "Seek and Destroy", a crowd favorite for its memorable riff and easy sing-along. It was good to hear some Metallica rarities re-interpreted ("Orion", and "Escape") but it might be interesting to hear these superb musicians turn their talents to the rest of the catalog. Then again, as the albums released since Plays Metallica for Four Cellos came out, this is so much more than a talented cover band. 

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