An Apocalyptic Return: Apocalyptica’s Cell-0


Alice Shao, Staff writer

Heavy metal cello ensemble Apocalyptica brings their unique sound to another album, Cell-0, an entirely instrumental record released Jan. 10. Apocalyptica first joined the metal scene performing cello quartet covers of Metallica songs before carving out their own niche, writing rock and metal music for the cello and eventually adding vocals. In Apocalyptica’s latest album, the band returns to their roots writing instrumental music with an explosive performance in Cell-0.


The band’s first entirely original and instrumental album since the heavier, metal-focused Reflections in 2003, Cell-0 manages to bring out the expressive tone and sound of the acoustic cello while maintaining the power and intensity of heavy metal. There are many moments during the album where the unaltered, acoustic cello is allowed to speak with the emotionality and beauty of classical cello, even when backed with modern elements such as drums and synth. The acoustic sections of “Rise” and “Catharsis” are expertly crafted with the cello singing out with the expression of a vocalist.


In fact, cello techniques can indeed be used to simulate singing, and it appears that Apocalyptica kept this in mind. “Using appropriate bow techniques to give inflection can easily replicate the vocal intent,” cello instructor Fawn Sorgi said. 


However, Cell-0 is no graceful symphonic metal album. Within the first few moments of the opening track, “Ashes of the Modern World,” the peaceful acoustic cello progression is interrupted by the sudden impact of thrash drums and eventually gives way to the madness of distorted cello midway through the track into a Slayer-esque riff and cello solo. Yes, you read that right. The cellists distort their cellos through guitar pedals, including the wah pedal for solos, throughout the album.


Apocalyptica also uses other metal elements that are present in Cello-0. Some of the tracks such as “Scream for the Silent” and “Beyond the Stars” include metal breakdowns, or rhythmic sections during which the music slows down, that take cues from the progressive metal subgenre of djent as well as old school thrash. These breakdowns are simple but intense, and the solos that follow are downright impressive with their fast runs and high notes. During solos, the cellos are distorted to the point that they sound almost exactly like electric guitars. In fact, it is easy to forget during solos that the shrieking high notes are being played, not on a guitar, but a cello.


Yet, the most impressive aspect of Cell-0 is simply the atmosphere. All elements – the hauntingly beautiful acoustic passages, the intense metal riffs, the dark chord progressions – all come together into a cohesive whole that is dramatic and powerful. The metal elements do not clash with the classical cello ones and actually complement them. The music ranges from heartrending to sinister to insane to uplifting in the final moments of “Beyond the Stars” as the chimes fade out on a final peaceful chord.


As for the technical aspects of the recording, there are occasions where the cello actually becomes buried under the metal drums. “Ideally, I would have instrumental microphones on each instrument, such as microphones that fit on the strings just below the bridge,” a local music technician that did not wish to be named said. “That way we could adjust the levels of each instrument as we master the recording.” Perhaps fine-tuning the mixing for each instrument could improve the dynamic balance.


Although Apocalyptica generally did a wonderful job with Cell-0, there are a few points of contention. The opening drums of “Ashes of the Modern World” call to mind the tin can drums of Metallica’s St. Anger, and that is not a good thing. As well, Apocalyptica seems to excessively love drum buildups where the drummer hits the same drums while continuously getting louder until a climactic moment, and sometimes these buildups go on for too long. 


Riffs and melodies can get repetitive, and without the benefit of lyrics over the instruments to provide variety, songs sometimes become uninteresting. “[Use of the cello] makes a classical instrument seem more now,” Sorgi said in reference to the relevance of the cello in modern music. “However many pop tunes are simplistic and repetitive and can become boring to play by some musicians.” However, the repetitiveness can be excused since Apocalyptica is using a metal format without a singer.


A criticism applicable to classical music is also applicable here. Acoustic cello passages can use more contrast between loud and soft as well as phrasing, a classical technique where a musician gradually gets louder and then softer throughout a melody. Classical music is all about contrast, and the inclusion of changes in volume across a melody would improve the already solid expressiveness of the acoustic cello sections.


Apocalyptica’s Cell-0 is a masterpiece that effectively unites classical music expression, thrash metal ferocity, progressive metal rhythms, and black metal atmosphere into a single work that makes it sound as if these different elements belonged together all along. This album is expressive, virtuosic, and powerful. Apocalyptica’s Cell-0 earns an A- and is recommended for metalheads and classical enthusiasts alike.