Did you know the DC area has its own heavy metal cello based group? You may not be familiar with Primitivity since they, at least so far, haven’t played many of the venues we tend to find metal bands at. They just released an album of originals that is, well, I’ll let DCHM writer Tal’s review speak for us on this. You can also check out her personal blog here, which includes a review of a recent Primitivity concert she attended. And as always there’s a couple songs you can stream at the bottom of this post so give the band a listen as you read the following review.
Primitivity, a quartet of three cellists and a percussionist led by Loren Westbrook-Fritts, debuted three years ago with Plays Megadeth for Cello – an obvious nod to Apocalyptica’s Plays Metallica by Four Cellos. Primitivity’s new album, Evolution, which is made up entirely of original compositions, demonstrates that this group of University of Maryland grads is far from a copy of that pioneering cello rock band. On Evolution, Primitivity blends the flavors of heavy metal and classical cello music in a way that is all their own, and will appeal to metal heads and classical music fans alike.
When I first heard Primitivity’s music, I was immediately struck by how guitar-like the sound was. The first thing I heard, through a sample track on their website, were the opening “riffs” of “Sacrifice” and then “Primitivity,” and that was just what they sounded like – guitar riffs. “Sacrifice” starts off with some energetic, slightly thrashy riffs, that you can just figure out are cellos if you really think about it. “Primitivity” begins with hammering NWOBHM-ish riffs – and then about half a minute in a clean cello melody comes in, giving the music the feel of symphonic metal.
I was hooked right away by the cello “guitar riffs”, but as I listened to the rest of the album, I realized that Primitivity uses their cellos to imitate all sorts of guitar sounds. Not just riffs – there are also shreddy solos, complete with distortion and “guitar squeals,” eked out by driving the cello to the very top of its range and pizzicato segments that sound very like acoustic guitar (pizzicato notes are plucked with the fingers). I had the opportunity to see the band live at their CD release show on October 16 at the Mansion at Strathmore, and in a live environment they sounded more like cellos – but even live, the lowest parts still sounded surprisingly like bass guitar riffs.
Not only that, but the trio of cellos backed up by drums manages to recreate pretty much the whole sound of metal music, up to and including “vocals.” Primitivity is purely instrumental, with no vocals, yet in many songs the cello parts (that is, the parts that actually sound like cello) play the role of vocals. This is quite appropriate, considering that the cello is considered the instrument that most closely mimics the human voice. I first noticed it in the song “Forgiven” – when the drums, the melody and the background parts all came together at the climax of the song, it suddenly sounded like a rock ballad with the lead cello delivering the anguished vocals. There are a few other songs where I had this impression, too, most notably “Transcendence,” where the leading cello seems to sing over a chugging “bass.”
And of course, I can’t leave out the drumming. The band wouldn’t sound metal without it, after all. The percussion is nothing super fancy, leaving the spotlight of complexity on the cellos, but it does give the music the familiar rhythm and kick of metal, and is delivered crisply and energetically. I’ve heard it said that percussion is the backbone of a metal band, and that’s what the drummer creates here – a solid backbone for the cellos to build on.
Without a doubt, my favorite song on Evolution is “Convergence.” It begins with a heavy intro of moderately paced riffs, which quiet momentarily as a lovely melody begins. Soon the riffs start up again, and the fusion of riffs and melody will touch the heart of anyone who enjoys sorrowful melodic metal. Aggressive riffs occasionally come to the fore only to yield the stage to the melody again, and then about midway through they come together in a perfect fusion of heaviness and beauty that gives me chills. After that guitar sounds take over for a bit, with what sounds like twin lead “guitars” and then a short shreddy “solo” before the melody soars over the riffs again. I catch myself playing air guitar, laugh and start playing air cello instead.
As a fan of guitar (and cello) riffs, I most enjoyed the energetic, riffy parts of the other songs as well. The rocking, guitar-like intro to “Primitivity” was one of the things that first drew me to the band. Then a sweeping cello melody soars over the riffs, the smoothness and vivacity of the melody contrasting with the moderate staccato marching of the lower riffs. (Staccato notes are short, fast, percussive notes made with the bow.) The first song on the album, “Sacrifice,” also has a strong guitar-riff sound, which is almost thrashy; the melody actually falls in the background to the riffs for most of the song. The way the cellos mimic the sound of electric guitars in these first two songs is pretty amazing; there are parts where if you didn’t know better, you might actually think there was a bass guitar riffing away with a cello playing the melody. “Psycho Logic” and the short, intro-like “Overdrive” right before it are probably the most energetic and metallic songs on the album, with some more rocking riffs in “Overdrive” and very heavy, almost thrashy riffs opening “Psycho Logic.” “Psycho Logic” is carried by a jaunty cello melody, but features a lot of, shall we say, weirdness, in keeping with its name – frantic high-pitched “shredding,” very dark and harsh grinding moments that sound impossible for an acoustic instrument to produce – along with ever faster takes on the melody and some furious “bass” riffing. It’s undoubtedly the most powerful metallic song on the album. “Revival” also gets furious near the end, although the beginning is very classical-sounding, with pizzicato that sounds almost like acoustic guitar, a flowing melody and a background of short but obviously cello-sounding notes backing it up. The drums and the “riffs” don’t come in until nearly two minutes in, when the background starts to pick up a bit of distorted, heavy sound. Three quarters through the song, it suddenly changes character entirely, with racing riffs and a feverish melody that dissolves into scratchy high-pitched sounds, to end on a fast note. “Emergence” also features some solid riffing, although the cello sound shines through even in the lower notes for most of the song. It also has a very sweet melody that soars over the infectious momentum of the riffs, and sometimes takes a backseat to more complex guitar-like work, including some shreddy moments.
These songs alternate with slower songs, which I did not dig as much at first, but they started to grow on me as I listened to them more closely. Even these slower songs have energy – they feature riffy backgrounds and shreddy solos, intense climaxes and lovely melodies. “Ascend,” a song which Loren described at the show as an attempt at “simple” songwriting, is dominated by long sweeping cello notes. It keeps my attention more with the catchy riffs in the background and some thin, high sounds that eventually resolve into a short “solo,” however. “Forgiven” starts out very slow, with an almost synthy sound that is encouraged by the distant, minimal drums. Long, sad notes eventually give way to an achingly beautiful melody, and finally about two minutes in the “guitar riffs” and drums pick up. Finally things come together in the climax where I noticed the leading cello delivering the “vocal line.” Unfortunately, this energy is quickly dropped for a quiet, slow take on the melody over distant drums; fortunately, the quiet interlude is quickly ended by a “solo” and then the song intensifies again. “Transcendence,” as the slowest song on the album, is sort of a shock after the fast and energetic “Psycho Logic.” But it’s not all long flowing notes – there’s some pizzicato and “bass guitar” notes as well, which add texture and intensity. Like in “Forgiven,” things eventually come together and the cello delivers emotional “vocals” while the “bass” chugs away in the background and the drums keep slow but insistent time. This time the intensity is not dropped but keeps going until a crescendo near the end. The album also closes on a slow note with “Prayer,” which the band played “acoustic” when I saw them live. I didn’t understand what they meant by that at first – weren’t all the instruments acoustic anyway? But I think what they did was to turn off their speakers and distortion, and let the cellos speak for themselves, à la chamber music. Unlike the other slow songs, this one is devoid of any riffing in the background, and the percussion is restrained to some barely audible thumps, metallic clicks and some sort of shaker. It’s a beautiful and relaxing end to the album, and although I found my attention wandering a bit, the frequent changes in tempo and intensity drew me back.
I was very impressed by the album. It’s remarkably heavy and metal, while at the same time not losing sight of the essence of the cello. This band is not as aggressive as Apocalyptica – when I saw Primitivity live, I didn’t experience that terror of them destroying their instruments that Apocalyptica’s take on Metallica inspires in me – but Loren Westbrook-Fritts and Primitivity capture the sound and the spirit of heavy metal in a way that’s more in tune with the classical background of the cello. They don’t just use the cello to mimic the sounds of electric-guitar-based heavy metal, but create a mix of classical and heavy metal, using the natural sound of the cello, the ability of the cello to mimic the guitar as well as the voice, and the unique sounds somewhere in between to express themselves in an unusual way that is both headbang-worthy heavy and classically beautiful.