Sunday Old School: Yngwie Malmsteen
Back in 1982, a young musician from Sweden arrived in California with, as he recollects, 'a toothbrush and a guitar.' Mike Varney, who owned the guitar-hero independent label Shrapnel, had heard a demo of his and wanted to foster his talent. Believing Yngwie Malmsteeen to be the next big thing, Mike wasn't far off in his assertion. Of the multiple guitar prodigies he would have on his label, from David Chastain to Tony MacAlpine, Yngwie was the one who would become the larger-than-life superstar. But, the seeds of Yngwie's talent were sown years earlier, in a place far away.
Yngwie's mother Rigmor gave him a guitar on his fifth birthday. His family was the musical sort and his sister Ann Louise played the flute. Malmsteen's true calling came a couple of years later in 1970 when he was watching a TV special on the death of Jimi Hendrix. That guitar legend's playing connected with Yngwie in such a way that he knew that wielding an axe would become his life's destiny. From that day on, Yngwie Malmsteen the guitar shredder was born.
By the age of ten, this young prodigy was fully immersed and by his teens he was already playing scores by Kremer and Paganini on his guitar. At the age of fifteen, Yngwie was working in a Swedish guitar repair shop as a luthier. One day, a seventeenth century lute came in and he noticed the scalloped design on its neck. Also a woodworker, Yngwie crafted that unique design into the body of his guitar to give it a special tone and sound. At eighteen, Malmsteen was already in several bands and getting no response from the Swedish labels. He was briefly drafted into the army, but managed to get out after two days when he threatened to shoot himself.
The big break came his way when one of many demos he'd sent overseas landed on the desk of Mike Varney. Yngwie came stateside and played on the second line-up of that classic project Steeler with Ron Keel. Recorded fifty miles north of San Francisco, this essential album contained the first hint of things to come in that timeless shred of tracks such as "Hot on Your Heels." People wanted to know who this lightning-speed new hotshot was. Steeler split up after this album, Ron and Yngwie both having rather choice words for each other in a couple of interviews I did with the both of them back in the eighties.
Yngwie then went on to another classic old-school project, Alcatrazz. "No Parole from Rock and Roll" was meant to be Graham Bonnet's breakout solo band but instead made indie stars out of Yngwie and his successor Steve Vai with its neoclassical hits like the MSG-esque "General Hospital" and "Island in the Sun." After these two stints with bands, it became evident that Yngwie didn't really ever fancy being a group's guitarist and truly wanted to be a solo recording artist. It was inevitable that he would form his own act and launch his career as a guitar virtuoso, which happened with 1984's "Rising Force."
This debut album showcased Yngwie's classical guitar prowess, which was something of a rarity at the time when most guitar players had mainly rhythm and blues influences. Yngwie would be quoted as saying that although he would definitely put at least one song on each album with blues influence to it, it was a finite commodity - whereas classical influences had endless sources of inspiration. "Rising Force," his first of six releases on the Polydor label, made it to number 60 on the Billboard charts and was nominated for a grammy in the instrumental category. Yngwie lost out to the track "Cinema" from Yes' "90125" album, but when you lose out to progressive geniuses like Yes it kind of softens the blow.
His second album, "Marching Out," also featured the vocals of Puerto-Rican descended singer Jeff Scott Soto, who this time had a hand in the lyrics of three of the tracks. Jeff's powerful pitch on these two albums and tracks like "Soldier without Faith" helped to launch his post-Yngwie singing career with Journey and Talisman, along with countless outings performing backing vocals for Lita Ford, Styper and others before going solo. Yngwie put out good, commercial power metal tunes on these albums, some more solo heavy than others.
He became known for his rapid fire arpeggios, which he considered 'running.' See, blues to him 'walked' and did not 'run.' In the early days, Malmsteen had a tape deck which played slower in his studio. He would record on it and bring it home. When he played it back, it sounded faster and that is how he would pick up his speed. Any fan of Yngwie knows how fast the man can play. To those that have ever thought that Yngwie's guitar playing gets self-indulgent, try watching him in action on several of his videos. The speed and measured precision of each of his notes and moves is something to behold.
By 1986, Ohioan Mark Boals became the next vocalist for Yngwie's band. The third album, "Trilogy," was written entirely by Yngwie and went the way of medieval themes. Malmsteen always took most of the creative control on his albums, and that is because he is a perfectionist. He had been maligned by the press frequently as being difficult, egocentric and controlling. When I met him and spoke to him around this time, I saw a different side of him. Sure he's cocky, but he is quite intelligent and engaging. He knew what he wanted and had the drive to pursue it relentlessly. It wouldn't have surprised me in the least at the time to realize that by 2012 he'd be on his 25th album.
After I'd seen him headline with the supporting act Billy Sheehan's Talas and open for AC/DC, Yngwie's career got sidelined when his Jaguar hit a tree and he sustained some serious injuries, including nerve damage to his right hand. Luckily, a year later, he was back in good form with 1988's "Odyssey" - this time collaborating with Rainbow's Joe Lynn Turner. For those that say Yngwie's vocalists only last an album - actually a few of them lasted two albums. Turner wasn't one of them, though. "Rising Force" now had his vocals, and we saw a far more commercially accessible side to Yngwie's compositions. Besides "Riot in the Dungeons" and "Krakatau," he even did a cover of the Cheap Trick tune "Heaven Tonight," adding his own interesting flair.
A year later, he put several of his hits and two legendary guitar performances on "Live in Leningrad," including the first incarnation of his Hendrix cover "Spanish Castle Magic." Growing up, Yngwie was not only influenced by him but by Richie Blackmore, flamenco/blues god Uli Jon Roth and the man who he considers 'a god from outer space' - fusion great Allan Holdsworth. Years later, he would pay homage to almost all of them on one of his albums. On "Live in Leningrad," you get a true idea of just how his live performances overseas sell-out. He is literally worshipped in Europe and Japan. Having seen him live a few times, putting it into perspective is when you take one of his interpretations such as "24 Caprices" and compare it to the original classical score to try seeing the process he goes through.
In 1990 for "Eclipse," Yngwie had Goran Edman on vocals. This fellow Swede had originally auditioned for the Vinnie Vincent Invasion a few years earlier and he would last through the next album as well. 1992's "Fire and Ice" was less accessible than its predecessor, containing some beautiful guitar compositions like the breezy "Golden Dawn" and "C'est La Vie." By the time Yngwie released his eighth album "The Seventh Sign" on Spitfire Records in 1994, Mike Vescera was at the helm.
When steering away from syrupy ballads and keeping the songwriting to true power metal and solos, Malmsteen nails it. Vescera was the right type of vocalist for the music to truly shine - his being the type of voice that can hold its own with Akira Takasaki of Loudness. The serious side of Yngwie came out in nice bluesy tracks like "I Don't Know" and "Bad Blood." Mike would once again collaborate with Yngwie on "Magnum Opus," after Yngwie put out two mini-albums aimed at the Japanese fan base (one was live at Budokan and the other had a theme to the Japanese wrestling champion Takada). "Magnum Opus" was a decent combination of ballads and neoclassical. It also featured that track "Amberdawn," which was a song about his wife at the time - Amber Dawn Landin.
Much has been written about the women in Malmsteen's life, Amber being his second wife after his union with a Swedish pop singer and his long relationship in the late seventies-early eighties with make-up artist/blogger Tallee Savage. "As Above, So Below," written by Anders Tegner, chronicles this time and his early years in the Swedish metal scene. "Sa Javla Metal," a Swedish documentary/movie which features vignettes about Yngwie's early career, will be coming out soon as well. Scenes of Tallee were allegedly edited out by Yngwie's current and third wife April.
Yngwie's second wife Amber Dawn made the news a while back with her website, where she goes by the name Dominatrix Seven. She had met him at a Phoenix bar, asking for his autograph for her Yngwie-fan brother. He moved her to Miami with him, where he makes his home still to this day, and theirs was a six-year union plagued by partying and verbal altercations which even included a 1993 SWAT team standoff. Amber claimed that she wrote "Prisoner of Your Love" during this time and still hasn't gotten any royalties. Fast forward to the future, and Malmsteen seems to have settled into a calmer place with April.
In this time period, aside from any drama, the prolific Yngwie continued to put out an album at the pace of every year and a half. 1996's "Inspiration" was one of my favorites, as it contained covers from all of his influences from Kansas to the Scorpions, with an all-star army backing him up on songs like "Manic Depression." Yngwie once said it wasn't all about speed. He does like to play slower, and he did on this record. Malmsteen said that playing fast is OK as long as it's clean - just don't play garbage. It must make sense. "Inspiration" showed his guitar influences, but versatile Yngwie also always listened to other instruments to break away from the cliche of guitar playing.
Swedish singer Mats Leven, who went on to collaborate with Candlemass, Krux and Therion, lent his voice to 1998's "Facing the Animal," which produced such tracks as "My Resurrection" and "Enemy." Much of the album was penned by Yngwie, naturally, who prefers being the main lyricist since he's had the occasion when others' ideas 'are cheesy and the substance is nil.' After the release came a concerto suite for electric guitar, a live album and two volumes of "Young Person's Guide to the Classics," which were both redolent in timeless classical compositions from Holst, Vivaldi, Bach and Mozart - a couple even featuring the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Yes, Yngwie is the proper artist to join forces with a symphony. His complex music lends itself to that, plus he is quite the showman. When Metallica or KISS play with a symphonic orchestra, it looks and sounds contrived.
In 2002 a couple more concerto suites were released, one with the New Japan Philharmonic and the other for electric guitar in E flat minor. Malmsteen is a huge fan of Eb and hates the keys Cm and F. He pretty much tuned to Eb and never looked back. On one YouTube video, before he launches into an arpeggio solo, he tells those guitar enthusiasts watching to 'tune to Eb and play along with me' before he rips into it. Yeah right! It's not that easy. Malmsteen is also exclusively a fan of Fender Stratocasters, which are his lone guitars of choice. Once, Gibson was trying to endorse him and offered up a free top-of-the-line guitar. Yngwie turned it down, graciously telling them that he only played a strat. So Gibson designed a guitar that looked just like one and sent it to him. Yngwie got such a kick out of this that he actually tried the guitar on a few songs.
2002 brought with it "The Genesis," which was an interesting assortment of songs from Yngwie's pre-Alcatrazz and Steeler days. He took the time next year to appear on Joe Satriani's G3 tour, in which Joe plays alongside two other guitarists. It would be a few years before Yngwie would put out another one - 2007's "Instru-Mental." He went back to his powerful side in 2008, releasing another 'metal band' album - "Perpetual Flame." Featuring yet another good vocalist, Tim 'Ripper' Owens, this album would prove to be one of his better releases with songs such as "Damnation Game" and "Four Horsemen." Instrumental fare like "Caprici di Diablo" were vintage Yngwie as well. A year later "Angels in Love" was issued, which was basically re-recorded, rehashed power ballads with steel and nylon-stringed guitar. 2010's "Relentless" once again featured Tim singing and had a great mix of songs from the instrumental "Arpeggios from Hell" and the forceful "Caged Animal."
2012 is an interesting juncture for Yngwie J. Malmsteen. He turns 50 next year and has a life many people only dream of. See, you can be successful and not sell-out. He plays tennis, owns four Ferraris, over 40 Rolex watches, acquired Robert De Niro's gun from Taxi Driver in his collection and lives in an opulent Miami mansion with April and his fourteen year old son Antonio. He had to condense the number of 'boom-boom rooms' he had for recording in order to make way for his kid. Rumor has it that Antonio likes to play the guitar. Yngwie has musicians and sessionists coming and going from his house.
He lives a less insane life these days, and only makes the news for his music and some non- musical histrionics such as having sued a Miami contractor for 100 G's for work on his house in 2011. He does guitar clinics, which he claims are more of a 'show' for him, since he doesn't like to instruct too much. I believe him on that note, since I went to his online guitar site "Relentless Shred." You can get a monthly membership (which comes in three tiers) to watch Yngwie's videos, but most claim that he goes way too fast and isn't necessarily an instructor.
Yngwie is currently about to release "Spellbound" as you read this. Tim 'Ripper' Owens is currently busy with the Dio Disciples and won't be part of the album this time. Yngwie was keeping the identity of the vocalist secret on his website. At first he claimed that he was handling the vocals himself, and others conjectured that it might be Ralph Ciavolino (his bass player who filled in), but I highly doubted that and wasn't surprised in the least when the voice was going to be Yngwie's. Many of his minions are looking forward to another dazzling technical release from Yngwie - although the man does not have a shortage of detractors. You hear the comments that his music has 'no soul' or that he's a great guitar player but has 'no good songs.' Well, it depends on one's mindframe. His music is for very discriminating taste and not for everyone. But, there is virtually no doubt that he is legendary in his skill. Yngwie is happy regardless. He has said he is elated to have lived his dream and is glad he isn't flipping burgers. He does have a sense of humor, you see...
Yngwie Malmsteen (Steeler) - "Hot On Your Heels"
Yngwie Malmsteen - "Evil Eye"
Yngwie Malmsteen - "Black Star"
Yngwie Malmsteen - "Manic Depression"
Yngwie Malmsteen - "Enemy Within"
Yngwie Malmsteen - "Arpeggios From Hell"
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