I said it before last December in my Apocalyptica's Worlds Collide review, and I?ll say it again today: in skilled hands, the humble, unassuming cello can become a weapon of pure metal destruction. Knowing that some of you out there may still doubt this wisdom, I decided to dispense with my usual threats of violence and back up my statement by recounting this Finnish band?s awesome skills firsthand.
Last week I found the perfect opportunity, when the band arrived at the Dallas House of Blues on the final leg of their primary North American tour. As psyched as I was about seeing them perform live, nothing adequately prepared me for one of the most amazing rock shows I?ve ever experienced.
Fueled by a hearty pre-concert meal of grilled salmon and Jambalaya (and well-hydrated with tasty Blue Moon ale), my wife and I took our places front-and-center at the press railing, taking a moment to study the simple but effective stage design. Beneath the neon-adorned proscenium, the stage backdrop was a giant scrim adorned with the band?s evil-looking logo ? a winged, skull-faced cello ? as depicted on the Worlds Collide cover art. Below this backdrop, in front of the drum riser, loomed four immense high-back chairs, all specially designed to match the same logo. Wireless receivers and effects pedals were arranged at the base of each chair, according to the players' preferences.
After the ?pass the line? ticket holders got their first shot at the stage downstairs, the house began to fill slowly and steadily throughout the hour-long opening set by DJ Sista Whitenoise (which consisted mainly of remixes of classic rock tunes, including an impressive version of Rush?s ?Tom Sawyer?). By 8PM the house was packed to its 1600-plus capacity.
Emerging onstage in darkness amid an explosion of cheers from the packed house, the band took their positions, with cellists Eicca Toppinen, Perttu Kivilaakso, Paavo Lötjönen and Antero Manninen settling wordlessly into their seats and drummer Mikko Sirén stepping calmly onto his riser. White spotlights appeared one at a time to highlight each player as he launched into the enigmatic opening strains of the title track from Worlds Collide. The cheers built to a deafening crescendo as Mikko's thunderous toms launched the song?s first explosive synchronized cello riffs. I felt a physical blast of compressed air from the amp stacks as the low-end vibrations kicked in, hammered home by a machine-gun double kick.
Taking a brief moment to welcome the crowd, the band promptly dove into a cover of Sepultura?s ?Refuse/Resist,? jumping to their feet (with the exception of Antero, always the shades-sporting enigma) to play at the edge of the stage. Perttu demonstrated his knack for windmilling his long black locks thrash-style, while Paavo expertly worked the crowd, often pointing out audience members individually.
New track ?Grace? came up next, followed by fan favorites ?Somewhere Around Nothing? (from Reflections) and Metallica?s ?Fight Fire with Fire.? Ramping up the evil intensity, they unleashed two of their most sinister and aggressive tracks: the recent ?Ion,? then ?Betrayal? from their self-titled 2005 album. The latter was originally recorded with Slayer?s Dave Lombardo on skins, but Mikko proved that he is more than up to that task, cutting loose with a hailstorm of sternum-quaking blastbeats to accompany the maniacal bowing action executed by the others. Eicca and Perttu leaned low with exertion as the end-pins of their instruments began to bend with the strain, rosin dust billowing in the air and mixing with the sweat of their frenzied efforts.
The band then broke again for a slightly longer period, mostly to introduce a new and welcome addition to the lineup ? singer Toryn Green (of alt-metal band Fuel), who took on singing duties for several tracks from Worlds Collide, beginning with a passionate rendition of ?I Don?t Care,? which blew the album version (featuring Three Days? Grace frontman Adam Gontier) out of the water, and ?Helden,? a German-language cover of David Bowie?s ?Heroes.? Despite a gentle ribbing from Perttu about his unfamiliarity with German, Green acquitted himself admirably, filling the intimidating boots of Rammstein?s Till Lindemann (who performed the album version), and smoothly segueing into English for the final chorus.
Stepping down the volume but retaining the same dramatic intensity, the band returned to their thrones for an instrumental rendition of ?Bittersweet? ? the popular 2005 single that originally featured a vocal duet by HIM?s Ville Vallo and Lauri Ylönen of The Rasmus. Thanks to this particular audience?s familiarity with their music, the band let the crowd supply the vocals. The result was an intensely moving shared experience, reflected not only in the strength of the voices from the floor, but in the beaming faces of the band members, who had by now fully tapped into the powerful energy in the room.
The growing excitement peaked with the double-whammy of ?Last Hope? and the ultimate crowd-pleaser, Metallica?s ?Seek and Destroy,? during which Paavo called out the most enthusiastic audience members to shout the refrain back to him. His efforts were obviously appreciated, as one ardent fan managed to slingshot her bra onto the stage ? which the band proudly mounted on the kick drum above their logo.
The title track from Inquisition Symphony followed, leading into the climax of the main set, as Green rejoined the others for a rendition of the new single ?I?m Not Jesus.? Green matched the angry intensity first brought to the studio version by Corey Taylor (of Slipknot & Stone Sour), with the cellists shouting out the lyrics on either side of him ? their rapt faces mirroring the audience?s ecstatic response as they competed for volume with the PA system, which was by this point being pushed to the limit.
The inevitable demand for an encore was generously rewarded with what remains possibly the band?s most famous cover: ?Enter Sandman,? the first cut from their debut album Plays Metallica by Four Cellos. The first Apocalyptica song I?d ever heard (on the soundtrack to the indie film Your Friends and Neighbors), that track had already made an indelible impression, but I?d never heard it like this ? a veritable explosion of menace and musical power. The crowd, not surprisingly, went insane, singing every word, bouncing pogo-style all the way to the bar.
After taking a second bow to roaring applause, Eicca took a moment to thank the audience for being one of the best they?d encountered in the U.S. ? and announced that we would be rewarded with one of their most popular encore numbers: a blistering interpretation of Edvard Grieg?s ?In the Hall of the Mountain King.? Even if you aren?t familiar with the title, chances are you?ve heard this piece before? but that still won't prepare you for this demented rendition.
In a display of barely-contained musical chaos, the cellists flailed so madly with their bows during this number that Paavo's instrument became the night?s first casualty, snapping a string about three-quarters through the song and taking him out of play for the duration. In a comic move, he managed to grind out a single note on the newly-replaced string ? one measure after the song was over. Fortunately for him and us, that wasn?t the end of the show: the third and final encore was served in the form of ?Nothing Else Matters,? another popular Metallica cover. Both deeply moving and surprisingly earth-shaking for a low-tempo ballad, the song was the ideal summation for the evening?s emotional journey.
After the show, Eicca and Perttu stepped out into the cool night air for a relaxed meet-and-greet with the fans beneath the blue glow of the club marquee, making a point of visiting with every single one of them before boarding their bus, repeating to the assembled throng that this was one of their favorite gigs to date. They were a bit secretive when asked about their upcoming plans, however, and politely dodged questions about their planned return to Dallas for this year?s Ozzfest. That's been confirmed, by the way ? they're playing for one day only, on August 9.
Though words are insufficient to describe the majesty that ruled House of Blues that night, I hope that enough of you reading this will go immediately to the band?s website or MySpace page to catch up on what you?re missing. After touring Europe this summer (including their native Finland), they plan on returning for some pick-ups in the U.S. (in addition to Ozzfest), so be sure to look for them in your area. Then one day, once you?ve partaken of the Apocalyptica experience, you may find yourself sawing at the air with an imaginary bow instead of resorting to the standard air-guitar licks the next time someone cranks ?Master of Puppets? at a party.
Photos (c) Shelby Tidwell
Special FEARnet thanks go out to photographer Shelby Tidwell for skipping a night?s sleep and nearly destroying her car to get to this show. Respect!