April 14, 2016

Apocalyptica: Shadowmaker (2015)

When reviewing Babymetal's second album Metal Resistance yesterday I mentioned heavy metal's penchant for numerous sub-genres and categories. Babymetal have described their own music as 'kawaii metal', and today I figured I would look at Finnish metal group Apocalyptica's latest album Shadowmaker. This is another specific kind of metal: cello metal.

That's a pretty self-evident description since the album blends heavy metal with quite wonderful cello compositions. It gives the entire work a very smooth, symphonic feel to it. This is the first Apocalyptica album that I have listened to, but the band has been active since 1993. They're the real deal: three of the band are graduates of the prestigious Sibelius Academy with a strong classical music education. While Apocalyptica started life as a Metallica tribute act, they soon segued into producing their own music. This eighth studio album has been a while coming: it's been five years since their last CD, and it is the first to exclusively utilise one vocalist (Frank Perez).

The album begins with an instrumental track: "I-III-IV Seed of Chaos", which blends slow heavy guitar with cellos and church bells. It's brief - less than 90 seconds long - but does work as a nice prologue. It rolls directly into the first track proper, "Cold Blood", which is a very upbeat sort of heavy pop song. Perez is the sort of vocalist I really like. There is a clarity to his voice that remains fairly rare in popular music - you can understand every word he sings.

Title track "Shadowmaker" starts off quite slowly before turning into the sort of heavy rock song that was all over the radio in the mid-1990s. From there it transforms into a much faster, complex guitar and cello piece. At no point does it particularly feel like heavy metal, but that's the beauty of the genre for me: once you jump inside there's so much variety in what bands can produce.

I get quite a rock opera vibe from "Slow Burn" and "Hole in my Soul". Both are quite consistently slow, heartfelt numbers. Both solid, but neither a favourite. "Hole in my Soul" at least brings it some strong cello work in the second half that lifts it a bit, but not enough to really make an impact.

"House of Chains" is a solid heavy track, but where it excels is in the way it seamlessly drops into "Riot Lights", a fast and energetic instrumental track that is absolutely the most exceptional piece of the whole album. The combination of guitar, cello, drums and synthesisers is excellent, and it really gives itself plenty of time to draw the listener in.

"Sea Song (You Waded Out)" actually employs the sort of sea shanty vibe its title suggests, which was a delightful surprise; just a flavour, but enough to really make the song distinctive. It's a nice blend of sounds with clever use of the cellos, and gets progressively heavier and more forceful as it goes. It's another highlight for the album.

The penultimate track, "Til Death Do Us Part", is another instrumental affair. It is also, at nearly eight minutes, the longest song on the album. It clearly gives the band time to really stretch out and develop an epic cello-and-guitar mini-symphony, which suits this kind of late-in-the-album slot.

The album comes to a close with "Dead Man's Eyes", another rock ballad - albeit one with the most orchestral and rich sound the album has. It constantly builds as the song goes, turning it into a proper climax. It's excellent.

While the album has its ups and downs, Apocalyptica really have a great sound with their combination of classical and heavy elements. Its last four tracks form a stunning prolonged finale that leaves me going away a lot more enthused that I was during the middle third. I am keen to track down some of their earlier work to see how it compares.

Average score: 3.8

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