Apocalyptica Turns the Cello into an Instrument of Rage

Apocalyptica (photo: Ralf Strathmann)

Eicca Toppinen is a headbanger. When the Finnish musician performs in concert with his instrumental heavy metal band, Apocalyptica, you’ll frequently find him at the foot of the stage, whipping his head into a cyclone, his blond locks smacking against the side of his cello.

That’s right — cello. In fact, Toppinen is one of three cellists in the group, and the only other instrument to speak of onstage is a drum kit.

Apocalyptica first rose to fame as a sort of novelty — its 1996 debut album was a collection of cello-based Metallica covers — but over the past decade and a half, it has retooled its lineup and incorporated original material, becoming hard rock fixtures and a global concert draw. Monday night, the band brings its singular live show to Cannery Ballroom.

“It’s changed (the perception of) cello,” Toppinen says. “We’ve had kids that come to us and say, ‘I was ashamed to play cello, but now I’m very proud of it.’ ”

Toppinen didn’t have dreams of becoming a heavy metal cellist when he picked up the instrument at age 9.

“I just wanted to play songs,” he says. “I didn’t think too much about which instrument (it was).”

But the wheels started turning when he joined a cello sextet while studying at Sibelius Academy, Finland’s premier music school. The group, he says, played “everything from Bach to Jimi Hendrix.”

“We figured if we could play (Hendrix’s) ‘Purple Haze’ on cellos, we should be able to play (Metallica’s) ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls.’”

Stand up and rock

Learning to get heavy metal guitar sounds out of his physically demanding instrument remains a work in progress for Toppinen. In the early years, the band sat down for the entirety of its shows. Now Toppinen says he and his bandmates have got the technique and stamina to stand for all but a handful of tunes.

“It would be much more easy to play (metal riffs) on guitar,” he says with a laugh. “With guitar, you pick the chord and the amp does the rest. We keep with the bow the whole time and add more intensity to the sound.”

He and the band also have to consider the stamina of the cellos themselves. For all of the bellowing, commanding tones it elicits, a cello remains a fragile classical instrument — and not one that was designed to play, for example, the opening chug of Metallica’s “Master of Puppets.”

“We’ve learned how to control the power, so that we can get the most out of the cello without breaking stuff too much,” Toppinen says. “But of course, we have, maybe 20 bows on the road, because time to time, they get broken. I think our average is one in two shows, somebody breaks a string. In the past, we broke four strings a show. It started to get pretty expensive.”

It’s not easy to find a heavy metal roadie that specializes in cello repair, so Toppinen and mates handle the upkeep of the instruments themselves. But they are bringing a vocalist with them on this tour, to aid in singing one of several vocal-driven tunes from their most recent album, 7th Symphony.

Among the album’s guest vocalists are Gavin Rossdale of ’90s alt-rock hitmakers Bush and Shinedown frontman Brent Smith. Those tunes didn’t work live as instrumentals, Toppinen says, but others do just fine on their own — with a little help from Apocalyptica’s fans.

“For the Metallica songs, we don’t need a singer,” he explains. “We normally have a full house of singers.”


    What: Apocalyptica in concert
    When: 8 p.m. Monday, March 7
    Where: Cannery Ballroom (1 Cannery Row, 251-3020)
    Tickets: $30

by Dave Paulson – The Tennessean

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