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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.

Heavy Metal Cowboy

We got there kind of late, only about 7 minutes or so before they went on, so we snagged a couple seats near the back. The Mansion is, well, a small mansion. the room we were in had seats for about 100 people. There were about 85 people there, so it was pretty packed. They also had a complimentary glass of wine. Not bad! Several members of the crowd looked like they were into heavy music (including one guy in a Metallica  shirt), but there were a ton of 'Old people' there too. Hey, it IS the Strathmore.

There was a short intro from the curator or whatever you call her. She gave  a  short bio about the band, who apparently all are from the University of Maryland and graduates of some program there. The 4 piece has 3 on cellos  and a drummer. No vocals, just instrumentals. WE had seen an ad on DC Heavy Metal and checked out a couple songs. Kind of like a local Apocalyptica. And she talked about their "Popup."

They started a little after 7:30, and it was a strange hybrid of a classical and a rock show. Their  frontman Loren Westbrook-Fritts (apparently my sister knows him) did all the talking, I think it is HIS band. The interludes and addressing the crowd in between songs were very low key and professional-"We very much hope you like this one, it is about the change of seasons and life, it's call Superfluous," instead of "THIS ONE IS ABOUT WOOKIEES , IT'S CALLED RIP YOUR ARMS OFF!!"  But the actual songs were 90%  them playing their classical instrumentals like rock instruments, basically. This was rather entertaining to watch and listen to the complex playing. Make no mistake, these guys and gals are rather talented.

I was only familiar with the covers they had online, so when they announced that they would play only originals, I was a little disappointed. However, since this was the album release show, it seemed fitting. But would it kill you to include a Megadeth song? I think this decision was partly because of the album release, and probably partly to establish themselves as 'not just a band that plays covers' or something. Again, I am only marginally familiar with them.

ANYWAYS, so these guys were all definitely accomplished musicians in their own right- I don't think there were any notes missed or off. The first song started, and we immediately went into a rousing rock cello song.  I think their song "Primitivity" sounded a little like Iron Maiden's "Losfer Words," but different. Other parts in many songs I thought sounded familiar, but I think I may have just been trying to hear things. Most of the songs were rather energetically and feverishly played, much to our delight. I think one song (can't recall which, maybe "Overdrive") was possibly fast enough for a pit in the mansion. But each song was rather complexly written, from what I could gather.

My favourites of the night were "Overdrive" and "Pyscho Logic " (one went into the other). The closer, "Prayer," was the slowest and most "classical" of the lot and was a bit too sleep inducing for me. IMO it was a huge a departure from the most raucous performance that were just witnessed. I thought it was a poor closer to an otherwise impressive set, going out on a whimper and not a roar.

Apart from that, I thought it was a very good show- different- but enjoyable. I wonder how they (don't) advertize, because we barely heard about it. A kind of acquired taste, a maybe a little artsy fartsy, but why not tap into that market if you can? Perhaps we should have queued up in the gift shoppe to get one of their album (signed). OH WELL. I would definitely see them again, and would recommend them with reservations (you gotta have a somewhat open mind to dig them I think, cause Primitivity is a different type of Heavy).

Next show: Obituary/ Strong Intention

Primitivity I
Primitivity II

Primitivity (7:38ish-8:35)
  • Sacrifice
  • Primitivity
  • Convergence
  • Ascend
  • Forgiven
  • Overdrive
  • Psycho Logic
  • Transcendence 
  • Revival
  • Emergence
  • Prayer

The Glass

PRIMITIVITY are (From L to R) Loren Westbrook-Fritts, Devree Lewis, Robbie Burns (drums), Natalie Spehar

“It’s exciting! We have a lot to look forward to! It’s exciting times for Primitivity!”~Natalie Spehar

The DC-based all-cello ensemble Primitivity is a group featuring 3 classically-trained cellists (and a drummer) that’s part of a seemingly expanding genre known as cello rock. You’ll see there’s a few, but certainly more than I knew existed (I did know about Apocalyptica).
“Primitivity was just cellos”, explains cellist and leader Loren Westbrook-Fritts. “The 1st album is just a tribute to Megadeth, and I did that thing with just cello sounds–It was all acoustic, and then it grew from there into being more similar to Apocalyptica with processed cello sounds and drums, but it’s also become its own thing, different from that in the last year.”

Primitivity has existed in various forms with Westbrook-Fritts, drummer Robbie Burns and cellist Devree Lewis. Natalie Spehar is the most recent recruit.

Their first CD Plays Megadeth For Cello was, as Loren described, an all-Megadeth tribute CD and self-recorded by him, and this record, by the way, did catch the attention of Dave Mustaine of Megadeth. “He liked it a lot”, added Westbrook-Fritts. “The whole band listened to it on their bus! I gave them each a personal copy!”

Symphony of Destruction (Megadeth cover; Live at the Mansion at Strathmore, Bethesda, MD 2011)

As far as Primitivity’s compatibility with the dynamics of a rock band, Devree Lewis puts her spin on it: “Cello is great to cover the kind of music that requires a band, because we have the great bass sound, and they can sing really high. So, with 3 cellos in every song, we cover bass, middle, high at almost the exact ranges that you would find with bass, guitar, vocals. In Primitivity, we switch those out and cover it pretty well, I think.”
“It lends itself really well to being processed like that, too”, adds fellow member Natalie Spehar. “It’s not like an annoying string sound, especially using real cellos, you get a cello sound, and it’s rich, and then when you add distortion or anything on top of it, it makes it something that’s really unique, and seems to be pleasant for people listening.”
“We’re using cello with pickup”, added Westbrook-Fritts, “and after that we use a lot of effects processor stuff. Actually, once the sound goes out of the pickup, it’s processed very similar to the way a regular guitar would be processed in a rock band. After that, it’s kind of like a real rock band situation when we play an electric show. When we do acoustic stuff it’s just straight-up cello.”

The group is planning on making an all-new recording, and according to Westbrook-Fritts, it won’t be a covers collection like their previous one. “Right now the way it was originally planned out, was to have it be all original tunes, because the fees associated with doing a cover CD are ridiculous, and it doesn’t help with the direction of the band, which is to be as original as possible. We play a lot of covers live, because people enjoy them, but we also get a lot of positive feedback on original music, so that’s the direction we’re going to stay in. We’re going to work on it in the summer. It will be done, give or take in the fall, depending on how quickly we can get it all finished and mastered and everything.”
“We talked about the possibility of doing a live-in-concert recording, too!” added Spehar. “We’re playing with the idea of making that happen.”

Due to regional issues, a touring Primitivity has been sort of an “impossible dream”, but there are some possible efforts to change that.

Spehar explained, “We’re all very busy doing freelance things, and 2 of us teach in public schools, so, we’re sort of glued down into the DC area, but we’ve been fortunate to do really well here, so we’ve been playing with the idea of maybe this summer or sometime soon, securing a chunk of time and going on tour somewhere. We’re working out the details, but we definitely want to expand it!”

Has playing this kind of music expanded or enhanced their playing of classical music (the other half of their music careers)?
Devree Lewis thinks so. “Since I started playing with them, I feel so much more comfortable. I also solo with the Tango Orchestra [Pan American Symphony], and it has changed the way I play with them. It reminds you that you’re there to have fun. It’s not about the performance or the nerves, it’s about the music.”
Natalie agrees, “I definitely think that this kind of playing all along has made me versatile, within a classical situation, too, it’s just more comfortable.”

Last season, rock cellist Loren Westbrook-Fritts was a Strathmore Artist in Residence. But it wasn't a completely solo venture. He brought in his quartet, Primitivity. Through concerts at the Mansion, the Strathmore experience helped expose his sound and pave the way for the album "Primitivity Plays Megadeth for Cello."

Last fall, Westbrook-Fritts introduced a revamped lineup that includes cellists Devree Lewis and Natalie Spehar. With percussionist Robby Burns, the group plays a repertoire that includes Led Zeppelin, The Beatles and Muse.

Primitivity often amplifies their instruments during concerts, producing a heavy sound that resembles the hard rock and metal originals. However, this past Saturday, May 7 at Westbrook-Fritts' Kensington home, the quartet rehearsed with a simple acoustic setup. Even Burns played nothing but a snare drum.

This video explores the Primitivity's origins and shows how much sound can come out of three cellos and a drum.

See Primitivity Saturday at 8 p.m. at Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church, 9601 Cedar Lane, Bethesda. Admission is free, but donations will be accepted to help support the Concerts at Cedar Lane series. For more information about the show, call 301-493-8300 or visit For more information about the band, visit

Video footage of Maryland's PRIMITIVITY performing cello versions of MEGADETH's "Symphony Of Destruction" and METALLICA's "Master Of Puppets" can be viewed below.

PRIMITIVITY recently released "Primitivity Plays Megadeth For Cello", salutes the state-of-the-art metal band MEGADETH by reinventing passionate tracks of Dave Mustaine music through the intense and beautiful sound of the cello. The CD resurrects MEGADETH classics like "Symphony of Destruction" and "Train of Consequences", redefining them for cello. Thick power chords resonate through the opening of "Skin O' My Teeth" while lush harmonies permeate the chorus of "Addicted to Chaos" and "A Toute Le Monde". Speeding riffs and blistering solos reign during "Hangar 18", while deep emotions are summoned during "Foreclosure of a Dream". Arranged, produced and performed solely by cellist Loren Westbrook-Fritts"Primitivity Plays Megadeth For Cello" is passionately driven and uncompromising in its intentions to bring to life MEGADETH through the unique voice of the cello.


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