Apocalyptica: Shadowmaker

Shadowmaker was released on April 17, 2015 and can be purchased from the band’s official site.

I have a long-held fascination with the cello. Sometimes lethargic and lugubrious, sometimes raw and furious, the instrument yields a human and harrowing range of sounds – it has its own voice. It strikes me as strange, then, that Apocalyptica – a band long-renowned for their use of three unique cello ‘voices’ at once – should create an album on which only three out of ten songs let that voice take centre stage. Certainly the last two albums, Worlds Collide and 7th Symphony, included a fair share of guest vocalists, but they always felt like just that – guests making brief cameos in a work comprising primarily of three cellos. With Shadowmaker, Franky Perez (former guitarist for Scars on Broadway and a touring vocalist for Slash) is the only vocalist on board the good ship Apocalyptica, and as such he dominates.

“He has a very soulful sound,” said founding member Eicca Toppinen of the decision to use a single voice throughout the album, “and he’s able to sing different styles which is perfect for Apocalyptica because our songs are not only heavy metal”. In this sense, Toppinen is completely right. Perez exhibits a phenomenal range over the course of the album, centred around a raunchy, often blues-influenced rock voice reminiscent of Shinedown’s Brent Smith (who was incidentally a guest vocalist on 7th Symphony). Yet this is just the baseline from which Perez experiments with gentle whispers, clean falsetto, eerie low rumbles and some truly epic screams at various points over the album, perhaps most spine-tinglingly in the album’s final track, Dead Man’s Eyes. There is no faulting this man’s ability to convey a full range of emotions. However, there is something about the voice and the cellos that don’t quite mesh. Whether it’s the strange combination of hard blues-rock and symphonic metal that takes some getting used to or something in the mixing, it all too often feels like cello and vocals are in a fragmented struggle for recognition rather than the harmonious coexistence of Bittersweet (a vocal track on the band’s self-titled album). A stand-out moment is the penultimate Sea Song, a gentle yet sinister number that makes the most of Perez’s full range, from a somber rumble to a lilting falsetto.

For me the single most disappointing thing about this album is how easy it is to forget that you’re listening to cellos. Perhaps that is testament to Perez’s performance, making Apocalyptica’s unique claim less of a gimmick and more of a songwriting staple. However, with a serious amount of heavy electric distortion, the orchestral instruments could often be mistaken for rhythm guitars, rising up in the instrumental breaks to surprise listeners with the realisation that they were there all along. While this makes for an interesting new direction, it belies the excellence of the earlier albums in which the interplay of there three cellos was thick with drama and decadence. Traditionalists need not despair entirely, however, as the three instrumental pieces remain a serious showcase of the many bizarre sounds one can glean from a single instrument, from the bizarre electric tones of Riot Lights (also featuring a drum machine… shudder) to the eerily organic keening of Til Death Do Us Part, with all the tonal and emotional range of a full orchestra.

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After an initial listen, my overall conclusion was was a desire to listen again – this time without my preconceptions. To someone who’s been an Apocalyptica fan since their entirely instrumental offerings, the album causes confusion – a band that found fame through classical covers of metal songs is suddenly selling hard rock songs. The overall sound feels unfortunately understated for a band with such a distinctive selling-point, Cold Blood making for a particularly disappointing first single. However, were I to approach Shadowmaker with fresh ears, knowing it only as a collaboration between a hard-rock vocalist and three talented cellists, I would certainly find enough to enjoy in it as an easy-listening experience. My problem is that I don’t want easy listening – not from these boys. I want to be grabbed heart and soul and left with a burning desire to run through a dystopian wasteland.

In short, I would recommend that listeners try to take this one at face value, enjoy the novel fusion of genres in its own right, and get their fix of cinematic bombast from the band’s 2013 live extravaganza, Wagner Reloaded. I’ve a funny feeling that once I’ve drawn a line between the two distinct styles, this new one is going to grow on me.

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