Is Yngwie Malmsteen the most singular artist in all of music? Rock and pop continue to produce their fair share of odd balls and untameable sociopaths, but Yngwie seems to exist on a different plane altogether. It’s not that popular culture has passed him by since the 1980s; it’s more that Yngwie has consciously chosen to side step any semblance of populist sentiment (and customary industry niceties for that matter) to pursue his own artistic vision.
Ask any journalist who’s had the pleasure of meeting Malmsteen and they won’t hesitate to tell you that he is both the best and the most frustrating interviewee they could ever envision. He’ll take seemingly random pot shots at his peers one moment (or in the case of one famous story, he’ll flat out refuse to listen to their material), compare himself to Leonardo Da Vinci in the next breath, before offering a fascinating insight into the differences between the classical and rock worlds. He has no problem taking on or outright snubbing the holy cows of guitar rock without ever seeming disingenuous. He’s not a Liam Gallagher style rent-a-quote who’ll do anything to promote his next album, he’s just Yngwie.
With the good, comes the bad of course. Malmsteen has no problem outright rejecting well-meaning questions with single syllable answers. He’ll deny the influence of any other guitarist on his playing and occasionally refuses to discuss anyone’s work but his own…oh and allegedly he doesn’t take criticism very well.
The press aren’t the only one’s who have had their ups and downs with the Swedish guitar prodigy; fans are equally split on the Yngwie question. There are pages and pages of furious online debate. Malmsteen is habitually labelled arrogant and aggressive; the story of the star threatening to kill an airline passenger is routinely recited and his own fans complain of having their autograph requests refused. Then there’s the question of his music, and that’s when it gets really nasty. For everyone who considers Malmsteen a genius there’s an equally vociferous opponent ready to brand the guitarist a charlatan, snake oil salesman who rips off classical composers in an effort to fool conventional rock fans.
Malmsteen is divisive by definition. Guitar Planet isn’t going to settle the Yngwie debate today, it’d be futile to even try, but that won’t stop us looking back on the Swede’s legacy and where he stands in 2012 after the release of new album Spellbound.
First things first, Yngwie Malmsteen isn’t a charlatan. To dismiss his legacy and stardom as a glorified theft is farcical. Interpretation is just as valid as invention, and while Yngwie owes a clear debt to classical composers, there is an art to uniting two disparate fields by infusing their respective stylistic tendencies.
Eddie Van Halen changed the face of hard rock when Van Halen released their self-titled debut in 1978. He upped the speed anti and showed the world that shredding and frantic tapping wasn’t a nerdy bedroom exercise but something visceral and, in the right hands, sexual. His wild, technically adept but completely unrestrained playing opened the floodgates for a new generation of axe wielding icons to expand the remits of rock and create the modern day image of metal (i.e. faster and less laborious).
Eddie’s symbolic breakthrough was vital, paving the way for a new breed of scintillating guitarists, but it lacked an intellectual edge. Yngwie Malmsteen and his still phenomenal 1984 LP, Rising Force, bridged the gap. Was every idea entirely original? Of course not. Did an interest in classical constructs inform his innovations? Definitely, but that record still stands as an important stepping stone in the evolution of popular guitar playing. Yngwie found a way to turn classical illusions and knotty overtures into fearsome road ready monstrosities.
He had the wild hair, the leather pants, and the melodic nous to turn these deeply complex and undeniably daring compositions into something so urgent and instinctive, it would strike a chord with earnest metallers in the dingiest of pubs.
Appropriation is a dirty word. The music industry remains uneasy about whether to justify and defend, or decry and besmirch, those routinely accused of stealing from less acclaimed sources. Despite this hesitation a line has been drawn in the sand - artists like The Rolling Stones and The Specials might have borrowed from little known bluesmen and reggae stars, but they progressed and pushed contemporary music forward. They didn’t remake old staples and slap their name on the cover, they created the modern image of pop by combining and melding influences with their own ingenuity, and that’s exactly what Yngwie did. “As Above As Below” is his anthem and no one else’s – end of.
He’s frustrating. Malmsteen remains implausibly gifted, time hasn’t dulled his ambition or slowed his speed, but he is nonetheless stuck in a rut. 2012’s Spellbound is awe inspiring and tuneful when it needs to be, but it feels like an echo of a sound that was revolutionary over 30 years ago. The dynamism is there, but not the invention.
Live, Yngwie is equally difficult. At the Marshall 50 Years Of Loud event Yngwie’s arrival was exhilarating. He ran on stage and launched into a free wheeling barrage of seemingly endless unwieldy notes. The second a solo appeared to have reached its natural conclusion it darted off in a new, knottier and more tightly coiled direction. His playing evoked a guttural reaction at first, but his act soon wore thin. His playing, while technically complex, felt strangely predictable and lacked an intuitive quality. The buzz after the show reflected this dichotomy as fans argued deep into the night: some were completely blown away by his ability, others were left cold by a lack of tangible musical content, and neither side was shy about making their opinions known.
Returning to Spellbound there appears to be something missing with Yngwie’s playing. His ability is unquestionable, his genuine passion for playing is clear, and his virtuoso status is in tact, but he remains rooted in the 80s. The fundamental idea of his music is still wholly relevant (combining classical influences with rock’s playing style to create grand pulverizing suites), but perhaps it’s time Yngwie updated his influences (if he’d even accept the notion of outside inspiration). Perhaps if he surveyed the developments in modern rock (e.g. desert rock and modern Norwegian metal), indie, and electronica, he could use his incredible interpretative skills to create another great leap forward.
Yngwie is Yngwie, he does what he does, and he’s damn good at it, but in 2012 he could be so much more – it’s time this maverick stepped away from the fringe, and leapt back into the fire.
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