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Punishing Cellos: Maverick string-rockers Apocalyptica like to sweat it up onstage.

Strings Attached

Classic rock becomes a classical gas

By Greg Cahill

Forget everything you know about cool. The hippest record of the year is "War Pigs" performed as a Latin mass. That's right, heavy metal god Ozzy Osbourne--Black Sabbath frontman, organizer of the Ozzfest summer tours, and co-star of MTV's wildly popular reality series featuring the singer's foul-mouthed family--gets a chamber music treatment that sounds so right, it's frightening.

This ultracool manifestation of Ozziness comes from the Estonia-based group Rondellus, a chamber ensemble that performs Medieval and Renaissance music on replicas of period instruments. After three little-noticed but stellar recordings of sacred and secular music from the 12th to 15th centuries, Rondellus is riding the crest of a wave of string quartet tributes to rock's heroes and has released a 12-song Black Sabbath tribute titled Sabbatum (Beg-the-Bug Records) that is getting a lot of attention.

These apocalyptic songs, penned by Osbourne and first released by the protometal band Black Sabbath in the late '60s and early '70s, seem destined to rest comfortably alongside the early music of 12th-century mad abbess Hildegard von Bingen.

Meanwhile, the string quartet tributes continue to pour in. Last week, just a day before the death of Who bassist John Entwhistle, the Hollywood-based Vitamin label (distributed by the label that brought you The Cocktail Tribute to Nirvana and which is responsible for about a dozen similar string quartet homages) released The String Tribute to the Who's 'Tommy.' It's a natural choice for this type of arrangement--Tommy, the landmark 1969 rock opera, already has been recorded in orchestral form on a 1972 album with the London Symphony. And, indeed, the "Amazing Journey/Sparks" medley is a minisuite that adapts well under the Section, the studio string quartet headed by violinist Eric Gorfain (who also produced the album).

This version of the tribute craze started nearly 15 years ago when the Grammy-nominated Hampton String Quartet adapted the songs of Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, Kansas, and even *NSYNC as part of the What If Mozart Wrote . . . series. That series, created by the Juilliard-trained quartet, has sold over 750,000 copies. Of course, Kronos Quartet raised eyebrows in 1986 with a cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze," and the Brodsky Quartet has tasted from the rock well on numerous occasions and even recorded an entire album with Elvis Costello.

But Hampton String Quartet's success hasn't gone unnoticed, especially at a time when classical record sales are plummeting. In 1996, the unorthodox leather-clad quartet Apocalyptica released its debut CD, Apocalyptica Plays Metallica by Four Cellos. The title says it all. The Finnish foursome have released a pair of follow ups, including last year's Cult, featuring a ripping rendition of Grieg's "Hall of the Mountain King."

"Oh, we love to punish our instruments!" Apocalyptica's Paavo Lotjonen recently quipped to Strings magazine. "Most of the time they are full of hair and sweat and rosin--our old teachers definitely wouldn't be happy!"

Meanwhile, the Vitamin label has been busy this year, releasing, among other titles, a tribute to Led Zeppelin. Of course, those British rockers were no strangers to string instruments or bowing techniques, both natural and synthesized. (Such classic Zep songs as the bluesy "I'm Gonna Crawl" and the exotic "Kashmir" made liberal use of a string section, and axeslinger Jimmy Page frequently employed a bow to coax eerie sounds from his electric guitar.)

But who ever would imagine that a string quartet would want to tackle that band's loping drum solo centerpiece "Moby Dick"? Enter The String Quartet Tribute to Led Zeppelin, a recently released 11-track ode to the gods of heavy metal thunder. The recording--which features contributions from the Section, Stereofeed, the Prague Collective, Interior Rides, and Painting Over Picasso--is a mixed bag of the inspired and not-so-inspired.

Other recent subjects for the Vitamin string quartet tributes have included Icelandic rock diva Björk (who has recorded in the past with the Brodsky Quartet), Sarah McLaughlin, and New Age vocalist Enya. The best of the new batch, however, is a string version of Radiohead's wistful 1997 masterpiece OK Computer, rife with post-punk angst and rich textures that readily lend themselves to this treatment. Highly recommended.

Can a string tribute to rage rockers Limp Bizkit be far behind?

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From the July 4-10, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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