Apocalyptica began their run by covering Metallica songs on cello. In 1996, three years before the Bay Area icons would add an orchestra to their live show, the Finnish classical musicians released their first album, full of faithful renditions of tracks like “Creeping Death” and “Master of Puppets.” Throughout their run in the 2000s, their albums saw guest appearances by artists such as Till Lindemann (Rammstein, Lindemann), Cristina Scabbia (Lacuna Coil), and Corey Taylor (Slipknot, Stone Sour). In 2011, Apocalyptica had the honor of playing alongside their metal inspiration, as Metallica invited them to play a handful of songs for their 30th anniversary show.
Cell-0 is the band’s latest effort, their first fully instrumental work since 2003’s Reflections. As such, the album has a progressive, composition-based feeling, with all but one song lasting a minimum of five minutes. By going back to their roots, even going so far as putting a disintegrating cello on the cover of the album, Apocalyptica fashions a highly listenable, accessible piece of neoclassical music, while showing off the instrumental chops that put them on the metal map nearly three decades ago.
“Ashes of the Modern World” saunters in to open the record with an omen and a jarring, very metal-sounding percussion section. The first section bleeds into a more intense, deeper second section full of chugging riffs. Section three, klaxon and all, is apocalyptic and fitting of the song’s title. Caution is thrown to the wind with the next passage, full of thrash-laden rhythms and some dizzying drum fills from percussionist Mikko Siren. It is a layered piece of doom-speckled metal, but with a title like “Ashes of the Modern World,” does that make this number the beginning of the end?
The title track follows, clocking in at ten minutes of mounting musical tension. At roughly one-third of the way through, we hit what could be considering a motif, a refrain that is fist-pumping and splendid all at once. A dizzying cello solo roars in, sounding like it was crafted from the love child of Steve Vai and John Petrucci. The second third lightens the fare, with a diminished presence of percussion and lead cello. The aforementioned motif lightly plucks its way out once again, before the drums remember that this is a metal instrumental, and pick up right where they left off. The finale is fitting, epic, and ties the ride the listener has taken in a nice, neat ribbon, capping off ten minutes of musical ambition and neoclassical mastery.
After the peak that was “Cell-0,” we need a valley, and “Rise” serves that function well, with more electronic elements than the previous two tracks, as well as a marked absence of percussion for much of the runtime. The tone changes from bright and sky blue to determined and a steely gray, as the opening notes of “En Route to Mayhem” paint an intense picture. Past the halfway mark, we embrace a fury rife with blast beats and a wah pedal-assisted cello solo, dipping right back into the thrash metal pool that the band frequents.
The melodic, clean tones ring true in the start of “Call My Name,” even with a drum riff that feels more at home as a pre-breakdown piece in a hardcore song. Even with that afforded, the percussion builds as the layers of cellos lay themselves neatly atop one another, with what could be construed as a drum solo driving the piece forward at around the three minute mark.
Troy Donockley of Nightwish greets the intro of “Fire & Ice” with some Uilleann pipes, after which the heavier side turns to face the listener. The middle section is a break right out of a classic metal song, equal parts chugging and driving. The final minute could be considered the “Ice” portion, as the evocative lead line reminds the listener of a wintry wasteland, or as some of us call it, northwest Ohio.
“Scream for the Silent” brings a drum machine to a classical metal fight, though the acoustic counterpart trails just slightly behind it. The patterns of the hi-hat and ride cymbals add a layer of progression and jazz, a refusal to just play it straight and just have fun with it. The melody over the synths around three minutes in is a dream, even with the hellish drum beating going on just beneath it. A wailing cello solo takes the track to new heights just as it fades out, though the fade takes its sweet time.
The most accessible song on the record might be “Catharsis,” as it is melodic and mysterious, without creating any tension or disconnect. Piano lines glide along an irregular drum riff, as the intricate layering of cellos adds a lush, warm tone to the piece. The closer, “Beyond the Stars,” starts with a plucked riff doubled by music box tones, before the rest of the band starts to ramp up this final act. A dueling piano section at the two-minute mark is anchored by an effective lead cello, as the second half goes into full darkness in the key of C. The call and response nature of the main riff in this section is a surprisingly welcome touch, an amplified echoing of the line. The final minute is a crescendo, a launch sequence that sends this existential record into the stratosphere.
Even for a casual listen, Cell-0 is a masterwork. Only after two and a half decades do Apocalyptica go the route of cellular, high-concept composition often associated with progressive music. Should the listener choose the route, it is a thinking man’s record, but a less determined consumer will still get a lot out of this album. As one of the last bastions of the neoclassical wave in the Nineties and the Naughties, Apocalyptica have earned their spot in the hypothetical Mount Rushmore conversation, and Cell-0 is a calculated argument to be made during said conversation.