Finish orchestral rock band Apocalyptica has proudly sold itself on a gimmick ever since their debut, Plays Metallica by Four Cellos. That isn’t to say that the novelty comes without talent and quality (it surely does), but still, they’re always known as the rock band with three cellos and a drummer. With their new LP, 7th Symphony, they also stick to their formula of approximately half instrumental/half vocal albums. Unfortunately, the result is only partially successful.
Founded in 1993 as an outlet for four classmates of the exalted Sibelius Academy, they’ve previously released six studio records (hence the title of this one). Following the belief that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” 7th Symphony alternates between heavy classical pieces and more generic songs. And of course Apocalyptica includes many guests here as well. It feels as if the artistic integrity of Apocalyptica lies in these classical pieces and the songs with vocals are just a way to ensure more album sales and popularity. Ultimately, they hurt the album.
7th Symphony begins with the aggressive instrumental “At the Gates of Manala,” which can be described as a less eccentric Mastodon track (and of course Metallica fits in there as well). The dynamics are decent, the musicianship is highly impressive and it grows on you over repeated listening. Had Apocalyptica only included tracks like this on the record, it would be a lot better.
“End of Me” and “Not Strong Enough” follow and they feature guest vocalists Gavin Rossdale (Bush) and Brent Smith (Shinedown), respectively. If you couldn’t already tell by the clichéd titles, these two tracks are just commercial wastes. They sound like countless other variations of the same aggressive heartache MTV and mainstream radio have featured for twenty years. Anyone could’ve written these melodies and lyrics, and the music barely features any classical influence, instead mirroring the dull rock quality of a lesser band. It’s a shame.
Drummer Dave Lombardo (Slayer) appears on “2010,” an expectedly brutal instrumental. If you’re a fan of the really heavy metal bands like Slayer, you know what this sounds like. The double bass drum almost never stops pounding and the riffs are fast as hell. The cellos appear in the background a bit, but again, the classical influence Apocalyptica apparently brings the current music scene seems missing here. However, it certainly appears on the next track.
“Beautiful” may be the most aptly titled song ever written. Here, finally, we’re treated to the symphony 7th Symphony is supposed to be throughout. It’s basically cellos interweaving melodies with light percussion, and the usage of silence illustrates a knowledge that emotion is built just as much from what we don’t hear as what we do. It leads into “Broken Pieces,” another commercial song (this time sung by Lacey Mosley of Flyleaf). While it’s still just as unremarkable from a songwriting standpoint, her voice is a bit attractive and there is a better inclusion of orchestral treatment.
Another highlight of the album is “On the Rooftop with Quasimodo,” which begins softly and sorrowfully before becoming heavier. Apocalyptica use dynamics wonderfully here, letting the cellos swirl independently before moments of silence preface drums and heavier timbres. Regrettably, it’s followed with the death metal influenced “Bring Them to Light,” which features vocalist Joe Duplantier of Gojira. Its guttural vocals (which sound like oral flatulence) and speed are so over the top, it’s downright laughable. I don’t mind such vocals in certain contexts, but here is definitely not one of them.
7th Symphony closes with two wonderful pieces, “Sacra” and “Rage of Poseidon.” The former is a lot like “Beautiful” in style, but it’s unique enough to stand on its own. The final track is easily the record’s best. At almost ten minutes in length, it makes excellent use of its duration with constantly shifting rhythms, riffs and levels of intensity. There is a central guitar line that the rest of the music plays around, and it recurs often, making the track feel epic. It’s an extraordinary combination of classical music and progressive metal, and it’s exactly what Apocalyptica should focus on and be known for.
Apocalyptica began with a novel idea executed brilliantly, and they still possess the same skills nearly twenty years later. The instrumental pieces on 7th Symphony are great and sound sufficiently fresh and distinctive. The album would be a lot stronger with just these pieces, but of course there are also four songs that bring it down. There are two sides to Apocalyptica, and the one that showcases offensively average songwriting should be dismissed immediately. 7th Symphony feels like an album that’s 60% true artistic vision and 40% simply borrowed from the mainstream to fill out the track listing. If Apocalyptica can craft songwriting that’s unique, mature and deep, they should include it on the next album. If not, they should just stick to the instrumentals.