CD Review - Apocalyptica: '7th Symphony'

Hell yeah, my evil cello-shreddin' compadres from Finland are back at last – and how I missed 'em. Yeah, I know... I tend to go on about Apocalyptica quite a bit here, and for damn good reason too: they can tear up a club or arena with as much (or more) devilish musical skill than the finest guitar heroes. Now that I mention it, why isn't there a video game out there for aspiring cello headbangers? Okay, I'm probably not the first to think of it... but if I am, then you read it here first!

The core quartet (three cellists and a drummer) kicked their game up to a whole new level with the well-received 2008 release Worlds Collide – which expanded on the band's recent trend of partnering up with metal superstars like Slayer's Dave Lombardo, Slipknot's Corey Taylor, Rammstein's Till Lindemann and Lacuna Coil's Cristina Scabbia – and now they've returned with their 7th Symphony, an ambitious work with yet another guest lineup. Read on and find out if these mighty Finnish bow-slingers hit their target again...

To begin with, it feels like the balance of instrumental works to lyrical pieces is about the same here as on Worlds, and that works out fine for me... although I'll admit I'm kinda partial to the instrumentals, and sometimes it feels like the higher-profile guest appearances come off a little contrived and stunt-ish, while some of the lesser-known vocalists to join up with them have brought a more personal, unvarnished touch. Fortunately the biggest name to team up with the cello boys on this outing is Bush frontman Gavin Rossdale, who brings a rough, urgent and emotionally damaged edge to their first single End of Me...

I really dug the darkly sensual feel of this track, and it's quickly become one of my favorite Apocalyptica cuts. But there's some other rock-solid winners here, from both the instrumental and lyrical sides of the record. As you can probably tell from the single, the band is starting to lean further toward moody gothic-tinged rock than the classical-infused metal that kick-started their career (the touch of producer Joe Barresi, whose credits include Tool and Queens of the Stone Age, is very evident in the instrumental cuts), but don't think for a second that they've lost the metallic edge: “It's heavier and more exciting,” says band founder Eicca Toppinen of the new material. “It has a very dramatic classical-metal mixture... and the hard stuff is REALLY hard.”

You'll feel the proof behind that statement with instrumental opener At the Gates of Manala, which kicks things off in style, intricate layers of both clean and effects-treated bow work crafting the overture to hard-rock grand opera; the album is bookended with another epic double-dip of awesome in the form of Sacra and Rage of Poseidon – both of which represent the band in top form, dipping effortlessly between melancholy and menace, creating a perfect storm of classical elegance and primal brutality, and proving once again how much pure emotional power comes from the cello – the most human-sounding (and human-shaped) instrument ever made.

The wordless works scattered in between are, for the most part, equally memorable: on 2010, Dave Lombardo returns to take command of the skins (not to diminish the fine talents of main drummer Mikko Sirén, who kicks much ass on his own tracks) for a sweet pulse-pounder that's perfectly suited to a movie chase (so much of Apo's sound seems tailor-made for an epic flick), while the aptly-named Beautiful paints a more formal, classically serene scene (though lacking the emotional sweep of Sacra). On the more exotic side, On the Rooftop with Quasimodo is an ornate tapestry of colors and textures that will stick in your head for days afterward.

I actually preferred most of the vocal contributions on 7th Symphony to those of Worlds Collide, thanks to that darker, more haunting tone I mentioned earlier. In addition to Rossdale's fine work, we also get the heaviest vocal track ever to grace an Apocalyptica tune, as the massive and ominous Bring Them to Light features the extreme vocal blast you've come to expect from Jesse Duplantier of French metal superstars Gojira. Not Strong Enough offers a straight-up mainstream rock ballad from Shinedown's Brent Smith – which isn't quite as groundbreaking, but it's got a very solid hook going for it. The album's only real misstep for me is Broken Pieces, due to the ill-fitting choice of Flyleaf's Lacey Mosley – whose voice lacks the coarse, emotionally-damaged tone that the other vocalists convey so well.

If you're a true fan like yours truly, you'll dig the Deluxe Edition of 7th Symphony, which packs in bonus tracks Through Paris in a Sports Car and The Shadow of Venus, as well as a companion DVD featuring excerpts from the band's live acoustic show at the Sibelius Academy. That set contains four songs from Symphony, along with perennial fan faves I Don't Care and Bittersweet. Apo-completists can also round out their collection with a pretty groovy cover of Black Sabbath's Spiral Architect, available in the iTunes Special Edition.

All in all, this is a worthy and satisfying follow-up that made it worth the long wait. Having been personally blasted through the back wall of the House of Blues during their '08 tour, I'm sufficiently healed and ready for another sonic boom when the world's deadliest cellists invade the US again. Hey, I'll freely admit I'm biased – I play the cello myself – but there's never been a band so expert at fusing classical elegance to pure, ground-pounding, amped-up rock, and they deserve major respect for meeting that challenge.

If you want a peek under the hood of their creative process, you might also want to check out this recent interview with the guys...