The cello can be found in the discography of almost all the great rock and metal acts. Metallica, System of a Down, Arcade Fire, Nirvana — they all have at least one song that uses the massive string instrument. The trend is so popular that cello metal has become a subgenre.
The undisputed pioneer of the genre is Apocalyptica, the Finnish orchestral rock group of classical musicians with a special love for metal who turned something they did for fun 25 years ago into a trend. Their success has earned them chart-topping songs and albums, and they've been able to perform and collaborate with some of the biggest rockers and metalheads.
"It's really amazing what we've become more than 20 years ago from that," says cellist and songwriter Eicca Toppinen. "We thought we need to do something to celebrate that."
Apocalyptica decided to rerelease its first album, Plays Metallica By Four Cellos, that put it on the musical map and do a U.S. tour of the classic Metallica covers. The tour includes a stop Wednesday night at Strauss Square.
"When we did the first album, we didn't have any expectations," Toppinen says. "We thought we'll sell a few copies and get a few gigs and that would be cool. Then everything started to just blow up, and it's amazing to look back and always find new ways to make music and keep things interesting for ourselves and fans as well."
Cellists Toppinen, Paavo Lötjönen, Antero Manninen and Perttu Kivilaakso got together in 1993 after spending most of their lives mastering pieces by Bach and Camille Saint-Saëns. They worked in their downtime while studying at the University of the Arts in Helsinki to come up with ways to cover their favorite metal songs on the cello, a hobby that scored some small gigs at a couple of college parties.
"Nothing was really planned," Toppinen says. "We were just enjoying ourselves and doing the album for fun, and suddenly it blew up."
Their album of covers of songs like "Master of Puppets," "Enter Sandman" and "Sad but True" earned them scores of fans among metalheads. They followed with more albums and original metal compositions that incorporated the cello's sound into the bracing melodies of their music. Their albums and tours across the world earned them chances to collaborate with some of the biggest musician
"We were recording in the house of Max Calavera from Sepultura, who was producing our vocals," Toppinen says. "I've been a fan of him since I was 13 years old. So it was a strange feeling of now we're here, working together."
Apocalyptica's collaboration with Adam Gontier from Three Days Grace helped put it on the Billboard charts with the song "I Don't Care" in 2007. The song reached its peak at No. 78 on the Hot 100 charts and pushed the band to third place on the Hot Modern Rock Tracks chart, ahead of AC/DC and Metallica.
Toppinen says the band's success is simple: It comes from hard work and always finding ways to have fun.
"We were serious, but when we're together, it was like let's have fun, and we didn't think anything was strange," he says. "For us, the music has been the serious part. We have a lot of fun when we play."
The group has broken into new territory with its music, whether through original songs or new ways to cover classic metal tunes.
"We have a passion to challenge ourselves all the time," Toppinen says. "That's kind of the petrol for the engine, which keeps it going. We never tried to do things ... easy. We tried to do them difficult because that's how you learn something new and you get inspired, and when we get excited, it gives us the chance for other people to get excited."