It’s always refreshing to hear a heavy metal act try new approaches within the genre — rather than merely replicating others. For the past quarter century, Finnish outfit Apocalyptica certainly have been one of metal’s most original bands.
Apocalyptica consist of three cellists (Eicca Toppinen, Perttu Kivilaakso, and Paavo Lötjönen), and one drummer (Mikko Sirén). Originally starting out as a classical Metallica tribute act, and then incorporating singers into their music, the band is returning to their all-instrumental roots with their latest offering, Cell-0.
Pronounced “cell zero,” the album showcases the group’s talents on an instrument known first and foremost of the symphonic or classical variety — as heard on such standout tracks as the recent single “Ashes of the Modern World”.
Speaking with Heavy Consequence in advance of the January 10th release of Cell-0 and the band’s spring 2020 North American tour, Toppinen gave the lowdown on the album and how his band pulls off true “symphonic metal.”
On what made the band decide to do an all-instrumental recording again
I think there were a lot of things in the background of that — in 2012, we did this instrumental project with orchestra, Wagner Reloaded, and that was one experience in that territory. Then, we did a tour with the orchestra, and then we did this one tour with going back to our original roots, with “Plays Metallica by Four Cellos” — which was a fully instrumental tour. That was so exciting to go back our core with experiences we’ve gained over 20 years. We were thinking, “It would be so cool now to focus on, ‘What is the origin of Apocalyptica’? After all these years, after doing all these collaborations with different producers.”
So, we wanted to go back to the core, and build the music up from that. That’s why we didn’t have a producer for this album. We just wanted to lock ourselves in the studio and not communicate with the other world and not to get any influences from their end — just to focus on what we want to do and how to do it. And making an instrumental album was the way to do that and find that.
It was very interesting, after so many years — 17 years or something — we haven’t done an instrumental album. We wanted to keep the concept instrumental, because it’s such a different approach for vocal songs than instrumentals. And also, for the listener, in a way you have vocals in the song, the way it happens with the ears, everybody naturally their ears focus on the vocals. And the vocals take so much space out of the cellos, and all the colors and flavors and layers that cellos can create, that with instrumentals, we have all the space for that. And we were able to explore all the dimensions, layers, and levels of the band … and our music and sound. That’s why we really wanted to do this kind of album now.
On why there was a four-year gap between Cell-0 and Shadowmaker
It was a simple reason — we were on tour for 32 months with 230 shows, playing Metallica! So, we had been super busy all the time. For us, we were like, “Is it really four years since Shadowmaker? Holy shit!” Then I got an idea, “Let’s celebrate 20 years of the first album and let’s make 20 to 30 shows with this special concept.” And it ended up being 230 shows. So, nobody saw that coming. But we were doing that so intense that there was no space and room to write new music and even think about the new album. That’s why it took so much time. Making the album itself didn’t take so much time — it was maybe half a year of writing and recording.
On the video for “Ashes of the Modern World”
We did the playing stuff and alternate stuff in one day, and then we added all the effects and images to match with the album, and the whole “cell-0 philosophy” — it’s not really a philosophy, but a thought around the album concept and what we had been thinking about with the album. We didn’t start to write a concept album, but while doing the album, it started to grow and to be a little bit conceptual. That’s why we call it Cell-0. For us, Cell-0 is the origin of everything. It doesn’t exist in official physics, but it’s something that everybody can imagine. It’s something to point out, that we actually come from the same source.
Everything in this universe comes from the same source. And it can create so many different forms when combined together. Like, music can do — from one note, you change the length, the pitch, different combinations, different orders. You have an endless amount of possibilities and forms. And that’s how nature around us is. Because we have an endless amount of forms of life. In a way, in today’s world, we have kind of lost our respect to that fact – that we are part of this bigger system. And we think that we are the system. That actually makes us to behave like a cancer cell — killing other cells, healthy cells, different forms of life. And that’s only because we are so ignorant to the fact that we are not Gods. In the universe, we are a piece of shit… but we don’t see that side of it, and that’s why we behave the way we behave today. I think that has been strong behind the band thoughts and the thoughts while we were doing this album. That’s where all the song titles are leaning a little bit… it’s scenarios and thoughts.
On his favorite guest vocalists who’ve worked with Apocalyptica
Every vocalist in a way is my favorite. But there’s been so many different, cool collaborations. I think one of the coolest ones is [Slipknot’s] Corey Taylor on “I’m Not Jesus”, because he is a completely one-of-a-kind singer. Another really exciting one was Nina Hagen on “Seemann”, and a great one was [Rammstein’s] Till Lindemann [“Helden”]. There were so many different approaches based on the personality of the guest.
On whether it is challenging to write and play metal music on cello rather than on guitar
Recording it is always more challenging with cello than with guitar. Because even though we try so hard, this instrument is not made for metal playing. But, we are not giving up! We are trying our best to hit our heads to the wall…and we are succeeding with that. [Laughs] But when I write music for us, I’m not thinking even how we are going to play this. Sometimes, I play riffs with guitar — I just play different than how guitar players play. And that’s why the riffs turn out a bit different than what guitarists would write. And then we just figure out to play it with cello. That always brings a new flavor to everything.
On whether he would like to see more metal bands incorporate other instruments into their sound
I can see that happening a lot in the metal world. And I think that’s cool. I never thought about that certain type of music needs to be played with certain type of instruments. I was never stuck on that kind of idea — that rock music is only rock music when it is played with certain instrumentation… or classical music is classical music only with certain instrumentation. I never was even thinking about that. That’s why Apocalyptica was formed originally. That’s why we started to play metal with cellos — because we gave a flying f**k about, “Can we play metal with cellos or not?” We just wanted to play. And we played. I think it’s a positive thing in the way that bands are going to get different kinds of flavors and colors into their music — because that makes the music more interesting in a way.