Last week was a hell of a long week. I’m not even sure if it’s really over. There’s a possibility I’m still at my desk last Tuesday and I’m currently in some sort of state of suspended animation. I’m stuck in-between the space/time continuum bookends like some discarded copy of The Canterbury Tales or What To Expect When You’re Expecting. No. I won’t even entertain that thought because more than likely it’s true. I’ll just take the blue pill and go about my day. I need to indulge my inner 14-year old for a moment. I need to talk about something unique. Something entertaining. Something about a Swedish guitarist with a dragon complex.
Swedish guitarist with a dragon complex? Did you read that right? Yes, you did.
Not long after I first started to play guitar back in August of 1986 my older brother introduced me to the guitar stylings of Yngwie Malmsteen. My brother liked hitting up K-Mart or 3D and buying these hard rock compilations on cassette. You could sample some of the latest and greatest without wasting your money on an entire Grim Reaper, Manowar, or Accept album. One of these compilations had Yngwie Malmsteen’s song “I Am A Viking”. There really is nothing heavier than a song about vikings. Unless it’s a song about vikings battling a Kraken. Or dragons. I was hooked. For Christmas that year I got my first stereo. A Soundesign home stereo with an AM/FM radio, dual cassette, ten band graphic equalizer, and a turntable. On December 26th my first purchase was two albums on vinyl: Judas Priest’s Screaming For Vengeance and Yngwie Malmsteen’s Trilogy. Priest’s Screaming For Vengeance is one of those records that will live in infamy in the hallowed hall of metal, while Malmsteen’s Trilogy will be lining the floors of those halls along with so many other overstuffed, pompous, self-indulgent records that came out of the same era. But still, this album did have a couple moments of guitar zen(I can see that look on your face. Stop it right now.)
I will state right here that I think Yngwie Malmsteen was(and probably still is) an egotistical shit head that looked down on all of his contemporaries like they were all children in his presence. He used to brag in interviews he could play Van Halen’s “Eruption” with one arm tied behind his back. He’d laugh off comparisons to other guitarists of the time as if they were all jokes. His album liner notes were littered with “thank yous” to Bach, Paganini, and Segovia; as well as Ritchie Blackmore and Jimi Hendrix. He was seemingly obsessed with medieval tales of dragons, queens in love, and outer space. But I will say this, the talk of his playing being soulless and nothing more than just speed over feel is completely off base. Despite the fact that yes, his playing was extremely fast and fell into this category of baroque classical metal, he had a hell of a lot of feel. Going back and revisiting his albums recently(I was bored, what can I say?), I have to say the guy had a ton of feel. I think Ritchie Blackmore is one of the most underrated rock and roll guitarists in the last 45 years. He had speed, but he also had this melodic lean and royal fluidity to his playing that put you in not only the arena of rock, but also some marble-floored chamber with a view of the sixth moon of Randar. Malmsteen sounded as if he was channeling both a Bach violin concerto and Deep Purple’s “Highway Star” on every track. He was an extremely fast player, but he also had a good amount of feel in there as well. Blackmore was a big part of that.
I think Trilogy was a high point for him. And it was a high point for me at 13 years old. I knew there was no way I’d ever get to that level of playing as a budding guitar player, so I decided I’d go my own path with playing. I just enjoyed hearing the guy play, really. After Trilogy he put out his most successful record, Odyssey. Scoring Joe Lyn Turner as a vocalist was a big plus for Malmsteen as he finally got a singer that wasn’t annoyingly loud and twelve octaves above what dogs can hear. Turner was like the Steve Perry of metal, and “Heaven Tonight” proved that as it became sort of an MTV hit. This album was followed by the live Trial By Fire : Live In Leningrad that highlighted some of the best tracks on Odyssey, as well as some serious guitar wanking and a cool cover of Hendrix’ “Spanish Castle Magic” that proved Malmsteen could pull off some serious blues licks. I got the VHS copy of this concert for Christmas in 1988. Watching Malmsteen, Turner, the Swedish brothers Jens and Anders Johansson on keys and drums, and some guy playing bass, it was cool and also kind of annoying. Mainly because of the spandex bulges and eyeliner. But you do get a good idea that underneath all the titillating dance moves and musical showboating these guys were excellent musicians. This was, sadly, the end of Yngwie. For me, anyways. He put out Eclipse in 1990 and it was horrible. He’d dropped the neo classical speed shows and brought on some sissy boy to sing ballad crap that actually made Malmsteen sound like a secondhand John Norum(as if a firsthand Norum was any better.)
So nearly thirty years later can I sit around and listen to Yngwie Malmsteen? No. I was pretty much done with the guy after I heard Joe Satriani for the first time. But after I picked up Extreme’s debut album in August of 1989 and heard “Play With Me” I knew that a new era had begun in guitar wankery. Still, I’ll always have “Queen In Love” and “Trilogy Suite Op: 5” whenever I want to go down guitar memory lane. You know, just for fun.
Time to dust off the Strat and slay a dragon or two. In spandex, natch.