It’s hard to imagine a figure more emblematic of ’80s metal shred-dom than Yngwie Malmsteen.
Born in Stockhom, Sweden, to a musically inclined family, Malmsteen was shuttled to America by Mike Varney of legendary Shrapnel Records on the strength of an early demo tape. Within the first two years of his arrival, Malmsteen had served stints in the bands Steeler and Alcatrazz, and released his first solo effort, 1984’s Rising Force, which featured Rainbow keyboardist Jens Johansson and ex-Jethro Tull drummer Barriemore Barlow and would go on to be nominated for a Grammy.
Plenty of rock guitarists prior to Malmsteen had been influenced by classical music, such as Queen’s Brian May, Roy Wood (of the Move and Electic Light Orchestra) and Deep Purple’s Ritchie Blackmore. But Malmsteen could barely even be considered a rock guitarist by comparison: Unlike his predecessors — and several of his contemporaries — he lacked a significant blues or rock ’n’ roll pedigree. Even Jimi Hendrix, whose spirit can be felt from heavy metal to hip-hop, seems to have passed by the Swedish shredder. It is alleged that the legendary guitarist’s influence on Malmsteen was limited to Hendrix burning a guitar on TV, which struck wunderkind Malmsteen as “really cool.” (Curiously, a cover of Hendrix’s “Spanish Castle Magic” appears on Malmsteen’s 1989 live album Trial By Fire: Live in Leningrad.) Malmsteen was, instead, a disciple of 19th-century Italian violinist and composer Niccoló Paganini, a rock star of his time whose erratic runs and melancholic compositions clearly left a big impact on the dewy-eyed soloist.
Malmsteen would go on to embody many of the performative excesses associated with ’80s metal: the poodle hair, the gold accoutrements, the perpetual O-face and other exaggerated expressions. But for him, rock ’n’ roll prodigality always seemed to take a backseat to the Pursuit of High Art. Disregarding the sterile, cavernous nature of its production and its hilariously dated album cover, which depicts a hand holding a Fender Stratocaster being consumed by hellfire, Rising Force remains one of the more listenable albums of its era and genre, highlighting a young maestro of considerable compositional heft and fledgling technical genius.
Malmsteen would release a seemingly never-ending stream of records following Rising Force. The 1985 followup Marching Out saw Malmsteen branch out into slightly more conventional metal territory, and 1988’s Odyssey — which was released on the heels of a near-fatal car crash that reportedly left Malmsteen in a week-long coma and temporarily paralyzed his right hand — boasted a new collaboration with lyricist and singer Joe Lynn Turner (also associated with Rainbow and Deep Purple) and featured the artist’s poppiest collection of songs up to that point, much to the chagrin of technical metal formalists.
Beginning in 2008, Malmsteen began releasing his material on Rising Force Records, a label operated by his wife, entrepreneur April Malmsteen, and named after his groundbreaking debut. Notorious for his constantly shifting lineups, Malmsteen has resorted to recording most of the instruments himself these days in his home studio. New record World on Fire also finds Malmsteen singing his own material, to interesting results: The combination of digitized instruments and heavily processed vocals on songs like the title track and the aptly titled “Lost In the Machine” are, in a roundabout way, the closest Malmsteen has come to making radio-friendly pop music.
Overall, World on Fire hardly deviates from the artist’s tried-and-tested neoclassical formula, which is understandable. Malmsteen has done his part as a musical innovator and seems pretty content resting on his laurels. And his innovations seemed largely inadvertent to begin with — Malmsteen was simply a kid reared on classical music who just happened to use the electric guitar as his medium of expression. Those who criticize him for being unoriginal neglect to recognize the adherence to tradition that has always defined his work. Twenty albums later, Malmsteen is still playing the music he loves, and there’s nothing ignoble about that.
Yngwie Malmsteen plays on Sunday, June 4, at the Majestic Ventura Theater, 26 S. Chestnut St., Ventura. For tickets and more information, call 653-0721 or visit www.venturatheater.net.