The day before Apocalyptica were set to play a collection of Metallica covers at the Sydney Opera House, the thrash metal legends cancelled their Australian tour. Though devastating (albeit understandable), it made the upcoming gig just that little bit more exciting. After all, Apocalyptica’s take on the genre-defining songs is a damn fine substitute, that some would rightly put on par with the originals.
Just over 20 years ago, Apocalyptica released their first album, Plays Metallica by Four Cellos, and they’d been on the road for two years celebrating in some of the most prestigious concert halls around the world. The otherwise denim/leather-clad metal masses of Sydney dressed for the occasion and frankly, looked pretty damn suave in their goth-tinged suits and perfectly polished New Rock boots.
As with most orchestral performances, the evening was split into two parts with an intermission designated for “coffee and cake” according to Eicca Toppinen. Part one was dedicated to Plays Metallica… in full with a traditional lineup composed of four cellos, no vocals and no percussion. It was a beautiful blend of classical conventions and the unabashed fun of rock n roll, as each member gleefully bashed out the soundtrack to their childhoods that became the foundations to their careers.
Cello is undoubtedly the most metal instrument outside the classic guitar, bass, drums combo. They way Apocalyptica utilises it to balance the intricate beauty of symphonic tones with the unbridled ferocity of old-school thrash, adds a layer of emotional intensity that alters your perception of the originals. When Metallica plays songs like “Sad But True” and “Welcome Home (Sanitarium),” they rely on blunt force and hard-hitting riffs.
Though that's totally legitimate (and awesome), the Apocalyptica spin intertwines a certain expressiveness that pulls your heart back and forward, as it gradually reveals a compositional beauty that was always there, but hidden under heavy distortion and balls-to-the-wall aggression. The final “Sanitarum” solo may not be quite as loud or hard hitting on cello as guitar, but the awe and feelings of fierce energy that comes from watching these damn talented players pull it off with naught but a bow and four strings, is just as heart-pounding as speakers straining under the Kirk Hammet’s wailing guitar.
Things kicked off with the two-pronged attack of “Enter Sandman” and “Master of Puppets.” The technical proficiency was extreme. Every single pluck, slide and pull was executed with laser like precision, unrestrained emotion and frankly, shameless enjoyment. You could see the sheer excitement each member felt as it hit them time and again that they were playing on one of the world’s greatest stages.
Though the crowd was a little hesitant to get involved at first, Apocalyptica immediately unleashed the metal beasts within by running around the stage and screaming at people to stand up and sing. Lighting paired perfectly with the performance and their stage antics – high speed strobes pulsated with high-speed riffs (or whatever they’re called on a cello), while quieter moments like “The Unforgiven,” were matched with darker, atmospheric hues. Apocalyptica may be playing classical instruments, but they’re all about wild stage antics that would be right at home in an arena rock spectacular. The only difference is their gear has four strings instead of six.
The first half was spectacular, but it truly peaked with “Creeping Death” thanks in part to the jaw-dropping speed at which each member nailed their solos. Combine that with Toppinen, Perttu Kivilaakso and Paavo Lötjönen leading scream-along moments typically reserved for Metallica’s biggest shows. In that moment, everyone found themselves back at sweaty, fist-pumping gigs where you rocked your beer-drenched voice raw.
But while the music is professional, and the antics entertaining, Apocalyptica don’t take themselves too seriously. Toppinen and Kivilaakso handled mic duties between songs by sharing stories from the band’s early days, musing on the event and even throwing in some jokes. It injected just the right amount of silliness into the evening that helped everyone, including the band, loosen up a little to feel completely comfortable.
After intermission, the backdrops were removed revealing a colossal drumkit, filled with strange percussive pieces that looked like they’d been cobbled together in a Mad Max wasteland. This portion was dedicated to Metallica songs that had been recorded after their debut, or some that didn’t make the cut for one reason or another. Once drummer Mikko Sirén joined in during “Fade to Black’s” final solo, the show transitioned from a somewhat raucous symphonic show, to a full-blown heavy metal performance.
Free from the bounds of being classy, Toppinen and Kivilaakso unleashed their metal beasts, headbanging like crazy while “For Whom The Bell Tolls” echoed from the audience chorus. Kivilaakso in particular went into full hype mode, screaming into the mic while the rest of the band leapt around behind him. They handled their instruments like an old school rocker with a battered six-string, lifting them above their heads and pulling all the classic rock leaps, drops and leans.
The only thing that put a pause on the frenzied fun was “Fight Fire With Fire.” The sheer complexity of that song on guitar can stop Metallica fans in their moshy tracks, and yet four cello players and a drummer managed to flawlessly bust out the classic thrash track from start to finish. It was a stunning example of their masterful grasps over the cello, one that left Sydney in wide-eyed awe. Remarkably, their fingers remained intact long enough to throw in “Battery” as well, a song that Toppinen said they initially avoided because it was too damn hard to play. They even covered “Escape” and unsurprisingly, Apocalyptica made the infamous Metallica misfire sound good.
As they worked harder and harder to get everyone involved, everyone finally got on their feet for a roaring rendition of “Seek and Destroy.” Sure, the Opera House has played host to some wild shows, but nothing quite compared to the walls rattling under thousands of voices screaming “seek and destroy!” They even added a little local flavor with a brief cover of Thunderstruck that really amped up the enthusiasm. A moving rendition of “Nothing Else Matters” once again saw Sydney in full chorus, a point that Kivilaakso acknowledged with a light smile before mouthing thankyou to the room. Then things went full ball once last time with “One,” complete with “hey, hey, heys” and “I can’t f***king hear you Sydney” which not only ended the show on a bang, but likely caused a pearl-clutcher or two to drop their monocles in shock.
Despite being at the game for more than 20 years and enjoying worldwide success, Apocalyptica still enjoy every single second of what they do, and that enthusiasm is perhaps the most infectious part of their shows. There’s no one band leader, sure Toppinen and Kivilaakso handle most of the crowd commands, but each member has a chance to lead the charge, stand in the spotlight and play multiple solos.
At the end, they all stood up and hugged each other before thanking the crowd, seemingly amazed at what they pulled off that evening. Really, seeing a band you love express their respect for one another, and shamelessly show how much fun they’re having on stage elevates a show beyond a gig, into a full-blown performance. Combine that with a venue like the Opera House, and you can understand why their Sydney show was so special.