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A genre unto themselves

"Playing it safe and following others was never an option for Eicca Toppinen. When faced with a career crossroads before reaching his twenties, he chose the unknown. And the unlikely international metal success story Apocalyptica was born."

Eicca Toppinen. Photo: Jussi Puikkonen.

BY Petri Silas

Playing it safe and following others was never an option for Eicca Toppinen. When faced with a career crossroads before reaching his twenties, he chose the unknown. And the unlikely international metal success story Apocalyptica was born.

It looks and sounds almost like a thunderstorm, but it is definitely happening indoors. The air crackles with electricity as the main arena of Tampere-talo becomes filled with light and saturated by sound not usually associated with this prestigious haven of classical music.

Strobe flashes, laser-like beacons and threatening noises aside, the hall is also filled with people. Numbering close to 2,000, the happy listeners cheer, clap their hands ferociously and stomp their feet in an open display of love, respect and appreciation for the heroes of the day.

The focus is on three amplified cellos and a drum set that await the gladiators on the dimly lit stage. Soon, the time comes for the aptly named Apocalyptica to return from backstage and launch into the last encores of their two-part, two-hour-long jubilee set.

Celebrating 20 years of the band’s existence is the name of the game, and today the team is backed up by a hand-picked ensemble of 24 top musicians from the classical realm. The posters screaming Apocalyptic Symphony by Apocalyptica and Avanti! have told everyone what to expect in advance. Tonight, these expectations have been well met − and then some.

Together as one, the ensembles have tackled a set list consisting mostly of original pieces but also including works that underpin the very essence and bravado of Apocalyptica. There is only one group in the world that can pull off augmenting its concert not only with an explosive reading of Metallica’s early speed metal gem Fight Fire with Fire but also a rendition of Edvard Grieg’s majestic Hall of the Mountain King (laced today with an impromptu reading of the theme of Finlandia by Jean Sibelius, as it happens).

The evening comes to a triumphant close. As it did yesterday in Turku and as it will do tomorrow at the Finlandia Hall in Helsinki.

 

The soul searching

A few weeks earlier, the mastermind of the project sat down to look back at Apocalyptica’s winding path. First off, the band’s founder and main tunesmith Eicca Toppinen, 38, retraced his steps to the very beginning.

“However romantic it might sound after all these years, Apocalyptica originally came to be as result of a bit of a personal crisis. I had reached a certain point in my cello and music studies where I began seriously evaluating my options. Playing in bigger orchestras was sometimes rewarding, but a lot of the music didn’t speak to me on an emotional level. So that was a kind of a cul-de-sac. And as teaching full-time was not for me either, there remained two realistic choices. I could either train hard to become a world-class soloist or I could come up with something totally new.”

Eventually, the soul-searching led to the anarchistic and ambitious parts of Toppinen’s personality merging together to create a novel way of making music.

The story of Apocalyptica commenced in the mid-1990s, when Eicca and three other budding cello students at the Sibelius Academy wanted to engage in something different. Since listening to metal music and hanging out in the Helsinki metal scene with future luminaries like Ville Valo was a thrilling pastime, the logical solution was to see if formal musical training and the unusual instruments could be utilised to make some sort of bastard metal.

“Because we come from the thrash generation, Metallica was quite a good reference and an obvious choice for a starting point,” reminisces Toppinen today before going on to state a crucial fact about the constitution of Apocalyptica.

“People often make the hasty and lazy assumption that cellos plus metal equals a penchant towards the pompous and the romantic. But, to tell you the truth, I’m more into the brutal than the lush and lovely – also when talking about so-called classical music.”

This leaning became apparent as soon as Apocalyptica’s recording career began properly. After testing the waters in 1996 with the self-explanatorily titled disc Plays Metallica by Four Cellos, the group broadened the range by covering material by Pantera, Sepultura and Faith No More on 1998’s Inquisition Symphony. But it was only on the third album that the quartet really found its own style.

 

 A new kind of Cult

Consisting mostly of originals penned by Toppinen, Cult came out in 2000. The disc was a brash and bold embryonic promise of things to come. At this point, kid gloves were certainly off and some line-up changes had already taken place.

“The initial line-up consisted of Paavo Lötjönen, Antero Manninen, Max Lilja and myself. Antero was replaced in 1999 by Perttu Kivilaakso and Max left in 2002. Some three years after that we recruited Mikko Sirén as our drummer and cemented the line-up that has stayed together until this very day. But Cult was without a doubt the turning point. Before we were cellists playing metal, but that album saw us imagining a new kind of music.

“More prosaically, it also marked a point in time when I founded my own company and took charge of many business things related to running a band that aims to operate globally. When my first son then was born in 1998, many things changed, and I was glad that I had taken such a firm grip on the wheel and steered Apocalyptica through some rough patches.”

Let’s backtrack a little here. If the romantic approach is not to Toppinen’s liking, what exactly is?

Dmitri Shostakovich, for example, is a composer I came to admire at an early age. And not only because of the music, but also because of the message. I love the story of how Joseph Stalin wanted him to play the Beethoven to his Napoleon, and Shostakovich reciprocated by writing his most trivial symphony, the very sarcastic Symphony No. 9.”

 

A call from Bayreuth

On the whole, Toppinen may have strong opinions about music and the music business, and he never shies away from doing things his way. But every once in a while along come collaboration prospects and opportunities worth investigating, even for the headstrong bandleader.

One such card came up in spring 2010 as organisations around the world began planning their celebrations of the lives and times of two giants of opera, Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner. It was the latter that a certain someone wanted to link with Apocalyptica. This someone was a famous German choreographer.

Gregor Seyffert, who had utilised Apocalyptica music in some of his productions, contacted me gushing how the time had finally arrived for us and his dance company to create something wonderful from scratch,” Toppinen remembers.

“Aside from understanding the weight and value of some outstanding overtures, I have never been a particular Wagner fan. But Gregor’s pitch was enticing, not least because the commission originated from the renowned Bayreuth festival.”

Nevertheless, there soon emerged serious problems with the timing. However much the arduous Toppinen would want to achieve, his day contains exactly the same number of hours as anybody else’s.

“We had recently released our album Seventh Symphony and were preparing for a lengthy world tour after which – we had promised ourselves and vowed to our families – Apocalyptica was to take a year-long sabbatical. But after lengthy negotiations with myself I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t let this opportunity pass by. So I ended up spending most of my vacation writing new music for the band!”

 

Babies, gods and dragons

Eventually scheduling, financing and other non-musical reasons led to Bayreuth bowing out, but Seyffert and Toppinen ploughed on and the massive joint production Wagner Reloaded was premiered in Leipzig in July 2013.

“Working on the piece was quite like creating a film score,” reminisces Toppinen, who has experience in that field as well. “Gregor presented me with a very detailed mise en scène of sorts which I began composing for. At some points he gave me total freedom as long as I implemented his wishes as regards the length, energy level and style of a particular scene. At others he had a very clear and precise vision of what the music and sounds should be like. For example, Wagner’s love of Ludwig van Beethoven and his Ninth Symphony was an integral part of the first part of the show.

All in all, the project was a big challenge as I had to write music for a variety of emotions and settings, ranging from a baby being born to a mythical godlike figure fighting with dragons. At first, our idea had been to use Wagner’s music as much as possible but in the end I composed a good three quarters of the music heard during the piece. A demanding but great project, in other words!”

 

Apocalyptic Symphony

Spending time in close proximity with the Teutonic opera monolith turned out to be a gamble worth taking as Wagner Reloaded clearly rejuvenated Toppinen and – at least to an outsider, it seems – made him look at his own methods in a new way. It will be nothing short of exciting to see how the experience has influenced the man as a composer when the time comes to start working on new Apocalyptica music.

Perhaps in part inspired by brainstorming with another strong-minded and creative person, Eicca came to the conclusion that a similar solution might work when preparing the special appearances that would commemorate Apocalyptica’s achievements during the group’s first 20 years: more than a thousand concerts played, over four million albums sold.

First came the idea of reworking some of the group’s material and arranging it for a larger ensemble. Then some calls were made and the world-renowned Helsinki-based Avanti! Chamber Orchestra became part of the process. How about the arrangements for two hours of music? Did Toppinen seriously consider tackling this task himself?

“I guess my tenure with this band and our collaborations with singers ranging from Ville Valo and Nina Hagen to Till Lindemann from Rammstein to Joseph Duplantier from Gojira to Corey Taylor from Slipknot and producers like Joe Barresi have taught me a thing or two about sharing responsibility and trusting professionals,” Toppinen muses with a smile on his face. “So for the Avanti! project, after we had worked out the exact line-up of the supporting ensemble and how it would best augment our sound of three cellos and a drum set, it was decided to let someone else do the arrangements.”

But not just someone else. True to their ethos of doing things with 100% commitment, Apocalyptica chose the arranger from the top of the Finnish music elite.

“I have known Jaakko Kuusisto and played music with him as a youngster, so I was confident that he would do us proud,” says Toppinen. “We wanted to present some lesser-known pieces and also some of the Wagner Reloaded stuff in the set, and Jaakko did an excellent job.”

As word of the project spread, interest from abroad arose as well. But some promoters were willing to stage the Apocalyptic Symphony only if costs were cut. Once again, Toppinen’s quest for perfection was challenged but he stood strong.

“Celebrating two decades of the band I love and have invested so much effort into is something that will be done by our rules or not at all. I made it clear to our management that the Avanti! people were chosen not only because of their superlative skills but also because I had personally made sure they could withstand the rigours of the road if need be. Very few classical musicians realise what kind of conditions a rock band is faced with day in, day out. So it was important to involve people who wouldn’t start whining when a sandwich backstage wasn’t just so.

“In other words, a half-assed bunch of sub-par musicians was out of the question. It was important to employ Finnish talent and in this way also give a little something back to the system from which we ourselves come.”

 

Towards a rawer sound

In about a year from now, on 5 August 2015, Eino Matti Toppinen will be 40 years of age. But he has already left a lasting mark on the global rock community. However one slices it and whatever opinion one may have of Apocalyptica’s oddball brand of metal, no one can argue that the group isn’t one of Finland’s most globally recognised, successful and influential bands of all time.

After taking the critically acclaimed Apocalyptic Symphony by Apocalyptica and Avanti! to the Baltic countries, Poland and Germany in March 2014, Toppinen, Kivilaakso, Lötjönen and Sirén will finally get to enjoy their hard-earned and long-overdue break this summer. Afterwards they will reconvene to work on Eicca’s new material at his home studio in Sipoo.

“It looks like August will be the time to get back into working mode again,” Toppinen says. “I started toying with a few song ideas before we went on the road with Avanti! and discussions with a certain producer have been under way even longer, so we are ready for the next step. And it is about time, as fans are getting anxious for new material after the special projects around Wagner and our jubilee.”

This time around the band wants to investigate a rawer sound, as Eicca elaborates.

“Much of metal and rock happens in the mainstream now. I’m far from pleased with this regression, as it dilutes the art form so much. For the next Apocalyptica album, I want a more in-your-face sound. The prevailing bombastic style appeals to me less by the day, and I intend to steer us towards the no-frills sound of bands like Rage Against the Machine or System of a Down. Largely thanks to Paavo, who keeps up to date with sound processing and amplification equipment, our sound is parallel to none in the world right now.”

 

Quality, perseverance, dedication

A similar attitude has been a guiding light in the entire Apocalyptica ethos from day one.

“We have always compared ourselves to our heroes who are at the top of their game,” Toppinen says. “Of course, we are so marginal that we can’t compete with the Metallicas of this world as far as success goes, but as far as quality, perseverance and dedication go, we continue to raise the bar with every tour and every release.”

And wherever there’s an innovator, there’s a copycat. Toppinen knows of the “A String Tribute to” albums that began popping up a decade ago, but declines to take responsibility for the phenomenon.

“I have naturally heard some of these releases, as well as being invited to attend similar concerts, but I really have nothing to say. As Apocalyptica, we are proud to have created our own way of making metal and persevered. And if that example influences similar attitudes in others, I’m pleased. But on the whole, there is always a certain comical element at play whenever so-called classical musicians decide to ‘rock out’, since it so often means covering Europe’s Final Countdown or other not very cutting-edge tracks.

“Nevertheless, whenever a musician from any genre or any walk of life bears their soul honestly and comes up with something new and original, I’m the first to start cheering, clapping my hands and stomping my feet.”

 

Petri Silas is a freelance music journalist and critic from Tampere specialising in jazz and rock whose reviews and interviews have appeared in magazines such as Soundi, Rytmi and Rondo, and newspapers such as Aamulehti.