Six Damn Fine Degrees #111: Plays Metallica by Four Cellos

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

I’ve always liked music. From an early age onwards, I played various instruments: pretty much anything with keys and anything that you had to hit with a stick or a mallet. But, as a kid and as a teenager, my musical tastes – and, really, my musical experience – were weird, and not necessarily in interesting ways. I liked big orchestral stuff, I liked film music, mostly of the Elmer Bernstein and John Williams variety, I enjoyed music that I’d heard in movies and TV series. Obviously I also listened to the pop and rock of the time, whatever was on Sky Channel first and later on MTV (which means that I associate much pop and rock first and foremost with the music videos), but I didn’t own a single album pre-CD, and even once I started buying CDs, it was almost exclusively film and TV music. My first, and for a long time my only, pop/rock album was Pink Floyd’s The Division Bell.

Which also means that as a male teenager growing up in the ’80s and ’90s I never had a heavy metal phase, and not only because I never had the hair for it.

I knew the names and some of the tunes of the big bands, of course. You couldn’t watch action films or play video games without coming across Iron Maiden or Alice in Chains or Black Sabbath in one form or another – but they weren’t a part of my formative years. I’d listen to the Star Wars soundtrack or Jesus Christ Superstar or “Suicide is Painless” from M*A*S*H, and later Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks soundtrack or Michael Nyman’s music for The Piano. Even a band as big and iconic as Metallica, while I was aware of them, largely passed me by.

So, while some people might associate Heavy Metal with Christopher Lee’s Christmas albums, for me heavy metal meant four classically trained Finnish cellists (they’d have to be Finnish, wouldn’t they?) playing the likes of “Enter Sandman” or “Master of Puppets”. Sorry, Eddie from Stranger Things: as far as I’m concerned, Metallica means strings played with bows and the darkly sweet sound of the cello.

Not knowing much metal directly, my assumption was that a lot of it was relatively atonal, burly men making guttural sounds with distorted guitar shredding and a rhythm section punching holes in the audience’s eardrums. I’m sure there is that kind of heavy metal too (or death metal or whatever subgenre we’re talking about – not really knowing the main genre, I couldn’t really talk much about those), but the thing that struck me about Apocalyptica and their cover versions of Metallica songs was how melodical they were. Which doesn’t mean that they were softened down, easy-listening versions: Apocalyptica’s sound was hard, it was percussive, but these were still songs, there were tunes that, together with the growling instrumentation, stayed in your mind. They were cantabile, as the Italians might put it.

It was a friend at university that introduced me to Apocalyptica’s debut album Plays Metallica by Four Cellos, and a couple of years later we saw them live at a concert in a local student club, where they also played a metal cover version for cellos of “The Little Drummer Boy” (yet again, Christmas and heavy metal make for cosy bedfellows!). Not my favourite Christmas tune ever, but I’d say that Apocalyptica cello’ed the hell out of that one and made it sound as good as it could (no offense to Messrs Crosby and Bowie). I heard the occasional Apocalyptica tune after that, but I never really followed them, because everything I heard later suggested that they’d peaked with their first offering.

I’ve since heard some of Metallica’s songs that these Nordic cello demons covered in the original version (which, thanks to the likes of YouTube, is much easier than it was back in the mid-’90s, where I would’ve had to seek out an actual record store!!!). They’re good, definitely – but for me, the definitive versions of “Harvester of Sorrow”, “The Unforgiven”, and yes, “Enter Sandman” are the ones played by four cellists from Finland.

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