No matter how objective you think you are, an album title like Celloverse is going to set up certain expectations. It could be an arrogant exaggeration; a tacky musical pun (and let’s be honest, what other kind of musical puns are there?); or it could very well be that the music you are about to hear is so original, so explosively emotive, and so excellently delivered, that it will comprehensively demonstrate every musical possibility available to the cello. Thankfully, for your ears – and mine – 2CELLOS’ latest release comes hair-raisingly close to the latter option. I say “close” because it would be unwise to suppose these bow-wielding rockers will stop discovering new possibilities for their weapons – sorry, instruments of choice.
Unless you’ve been living under a very large rock, you’ll know that classical cellists Luka Šulić and Stjepan Hauser rose to fame (and scored a Sony Masterworks contract) when their cello cover of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” went viral on YouTube in 2011. The unique blend of classical technique and hard rock vigour necessitated the creation of a new genre, “Ba-rock” (Baroque + rock – now there’s a musical pun worth repeating), and just over three years later, 2CELLOS are still rocking out their genre-bending covers.
In defiance of the small catalogue of cello music in the Western Canon, the duo begin Celloverse with an arrangement of Rossini’s iconic “William Tell Overture“ that turns into Iron Maiden’s “The Trooper.” And damn it, it works. The statement could not be clearer: classical musicians can play heavy metal music and cellos are not just for classical music. The precedent for the rest of the album is set, and boy does it deliver.
As can be expected by this point, there is another Michael Jackson tribute in the form of “They Don’t Care About Us,” which, while full of ‘tude, doesn’t push the same buttons that “Smooth Criminal” did. Mumford & Sons’ Babel favourite “I Will Wait” is satisfyingly expansive, heart-pumping stuff, but a better moment is when classical pianist Lang Lang (who helped out with “Clocks” on previous album In2ition) joins in on Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die.” An album standout, the arrangement quickly escalates into an unbridled, melodramatic juggernaut, of course. After all, these are the musicians who claim to “love AC/DC as much as Bach” – a love they declare breathtakingly with a cover of the classic “Thunderstruck.” By the way, that is not an electric guitar solo you hear, it is a distorted cello, and it sounds freaking awesome.
Adrenaline is all well and good, but Celloverse would be dull if it lacked subtlety. Thankfully, Šulić and Hauser’s eye-watering virtuosity still showcases admirable mastery of technique and tone colour amongst the string-sawing; and there is some respite amidst the musical TNT. Hans Zimmer’s “Time” is an eerie, brooding soundscape of pulsating bass notes and close harmony, while Sting’s “Shape of My Heart” would be quite at home on the soundtrack of a period drama. On the up-tempo side of things, Avicii and Aloe Blacc’s “Wake Me Up,” is another album highlight. The foot-stomping chorus comes to life with aplomb but never sacrifices sensitivity for crass energy.
Part of the excitement of 2CELLOS is the sheer magnitude of their arrangements. The fact that two men, with two relatively unpopular instruments (of the classical world, no less) can create musical landscapes so vast and wild, is part of the magic of their sound. While Šulić and Hauser do explore the possibilities that technology has to offer, it is the raw, acoustic sound of the cello that is at the heart of Celloverse. Also note that the title track is an original composition that hints at exciting future projects; as visual as it is aural, it smacks of successful film music writing. Dramatic, showy, yet inherently musical, Celloverse will assuredly take you to another world – or should that be dimension?