November 2, 2008

Those Finns sure rock!

I’ve been to many a great concert, and I’m considering ranking this one the best EVER. And it has nothing to do with theatrics like lasers or massive yellow balloons or even hi-tech video screens. In fact, the show had none of the above… but I didn’t even notice their absence. The lighting component was elegantly simple and effective. Between the white lights and grey and black set, predominantly black clothing and greyscale backdrop, the scene would have been almost devoid of colour were it not for the musicians’ elegant cellos and some deliciously bright blonde hair. No, this time it was their impressive musicianship and unique style if not genre unto itself that made the concert so exceptional and captivating.

I am speaking, of course, of Finnish band Apocalyptica, who returned last Saturday night for a sold-out show at Vancouver’s historic Vogue Theatre.

While trained classical cellists, Apocalyptica is not, granted, the kind of music my Finnish mother would enjoy. They are in a genre that, for perplexing reasons which I cannot explain, has apparently produced an abundance of Finnish groups that have often found quite some success internationally, including the 2006 Eurovision winners Lordi: metal. Uh, also, speed metal, which is basically metal played faster than it normally is, and death metal, which is even darker.

Flickr photo by Metal Chris, Washington DC

Their bows were hummingbirds across the strings and their fingers on the neck as agile and precise as the best metal guitarists. Their sound emulates the electric guitar shockingly well but incorporates the romantic, melodic voice of the cello to great effect. Their stage presence was in general no different than that of any other rock band, even with such massive instruments, with one notable exception that is at least in my experience unique. Eicca Toppinen swung his head around in circles to the furious rhythm, a sight that was at once creepy—his head bent down and hidden behind long hair made him appear headless—and sexy in inexplicable ways. That I found it appealing surprised me since I normally don’t fancy headbanging, often an aggressive-looking showing of the male ego. Eicca was different; somewhat effeminate and pretty, with tidy hair and a humble appearance, he gave the movement a more artful and stunning quality. That and I’d never seen anyone do it like that before! Their name makes an appearance in Wikipedia‘s page on headbanging, in the definition of the circular swing style, aka Windmill, specifically for something called “synchronized windmilling.” That’s when Eicca and Perttu headbang simultaneously, as can be seen in the first YouTube video below.

Flickr photo by Metal Chris, Washington DC

Typically at concerts I zone out at some point, distracted by other thoughts. Sometimes it’s because I’m obsessing over something I missed seeing, so I stop paying attention. Or they’re playing a song I don’t like, or I’m just trying to breathe because folks nearby are smoking joints. This is the first concert in recent memory where I’ve managed to focus the entire time, even during songs I didn’t know or didn’t like — for instance, I don’t listen to Metallica but I was enthralled by the performance! A unique situation was made by the small venue and my proximity to the stage, so there was constant visual stimuli, much of which was new to me (cellos, head spinning).

Apocalyptica live at Eurovision 2007 (Helsinki)

The only downside I can think of is that their touring singer is terrible. He made appearances for a few songs, and fortunately one of those was not Apocalyptica’s single Bittersweet, which in the studio version features a duet by fellow Finns Ville Valo (HIM) and Lauri Ylönen (The Rasmus). I’d only heard the song a few times the previous night so unfortunately I couldn’t remember the lyrics, but it was moving and unforgettable. Eicca said it was “for the ladies” and something about for the men “if you prefer us,” a cute statement which drew some giggles from the crowd. The band’s broken English with heavy accents was endearing. “Van-coo-va.” Eicca said to Paavo something to the extent of, we need to get him off his ass, and “are you ready with your ass?” Hah, I love Finns.

Video for Apocalyptica’s Bittersweet

At the end of the performance, after the highly sought-after encore, the whole group hugged each other one at a time and went off with their cellos. And I took the time afterward to stare at the sliver of light across the top of one of the cello-tombstone-seats under the stage lights, and at the set in general, altogether an early Halloween treat. Beautiful.