The Insanity Of Metallica, Delivered Via Cello

Heavy metal seems to have become a mockery of late. Oh, sure, much of

what got labeled heavy metal--Poison, Warrant, Ratt--was a sort of mockery

to begin with. But with folks like Pat Boone covering songs by Alice

Cooper and Deep Purple, and the recent "comebacks" (as if) of Warrant, Def

Leppard and Kip Winger, things have gotten a bit strange. You might want

to chalk up the debut record by Apocalyptica--the Finnish cello quartet

who's just released an album of Metallica covers--as part of this mockery.

But please, don't. While this group might have an odd take on some of

metal's finest tunes, they have nothing to do with the pathetic posturing

of those aforementioned "artists."

Instead, Apocalyptica's record has everything to do with taking

Metallica's classic songs and making them even more timeless than ever--if

such a thing is possible. The only trouble listeners might have with the

album is getting over the idea of the cello as an instrument solely hinged

on 200-year-old symphonies. In fact, Apocalyptica shows how Metallica's

elaborate musical arrangements fit the sound of the cello perfectly. With

their four instruments, Max Lilja, Antero Manninen, Paavo Lotjonen and

Eicca Toppinen approximate James Hetfield's growling vocals, Kirk

Hammett's riff-heavy thrash and his lush guitar interludes, and the

percussive elements lent by Cliff Burton, Jason Newsted and Lars Ulrich.

The album opens with their version of "Enter Sandman," high notes on one

instrument, the low, distorted chuck-chuck-a-chuck melody on another.

Without lyrics gumming up the arrangement, it's easier to pick out melody

and harmony lines here and on other songs throughout the disc. In some

cases this can be problematic; many of the vocal lines tend to sound

repetitive without words with which to sing along. But in other cases the

pieces are elevated to another level, where everything is conveyed by the

versatile sound of the cellos.

"Master of Puppets," for instance, moves through the song's many mood

changes with ease, recreating the driving, demonic flail of the early

verses and the lead melody, which more than suggests the invasive tone of

the piece. And then in the song's slow, melodic central section the

cellos shapeshift from hard-core instruments of distortion to their more

familiar personae, swirling with aching beauty around Hammett's original

work--down to every last trill.

On "The Unforgiven," the cellos are also gorgeous and emotive. It's said

that this instrument is the one that most closely resembles the sound of

the human voice, so it's appropriate that on this song--the one where

Hetfield first showcased his newfound ability to sing on 1991's

Metallica, is perhaps the best on Apocalyptica's album. It's

certainly the prettiest--an adjective rarely applied to Metallica's work.

And yet their renditions of hard-edged tunes like "Sad But True" and

"Wherever I May Roam" are equally powerful, coming on like the four

horsemen in the power-chord attacks, keeping the pace during the most

dizzying solos. "Creeping Death," a mainstay of Metallica's die-hard

fans, is revived in all its anthemic glory, plodding along with the doomed

finesse of the original.

The fact that the album closes with "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)" is

somehow appropriate, a nod to the insanity that would drive a group to

record a collection of Metallica songs played by cellists. But the track

also functions as a tip of the hat to Metallica's older fans, some of whom

might find more loyalty in Apocalyptica's work here than in Metallica's

latest endeavors.

The only drawback here, if indeed it is one, is Apocalyptica's strict

adherence to the arrangements of Metallica's original songs. Although

their idea is a fresh one, it wears a bit thin with repeated listens,

because--instrumentation aside--these covers sound exactly like the

originals. It helps, too, if you know the words; in fact, the

arrangements are so precise, they might remind you of lyrics you thought

you'd forgotten. Despite its more precious qualities, Apocalyptica's

album is a must-have for any serious Metallica fan--and might even awake a

few reluctant listeners to the intelligence inherent in the originals.