Happy new year, everybody! What a wild ride we’ve left behind us, and what a wild ride we’re in for still, huh? Only fitting, then, that we’re ringing in 2022 with a flurry of a million notes per second. Yngwie Malmsteen is one of the most notorious guitar shredders worldwide – a sharper tongue than mine would suggest that it’s always been style over substance with him – and his legacy seems to remain intact even to this day. The specific (live) album we’ve chosen for this special occasion is Concerto Suite for Electric Guitar and Orchestra in E flat minor LIVE with the New Japan Philharmonic from 2002, which actually turns 20 on this very day! How fitting, how thematically appropriate!
‘Stop patting yourself on the shoulder, Dom, and get back to the topic at hand!‘, I hear you say, and I agree. Among our fine team at Everything Is Noise, one man stands out with his background in both classical music and Malmsteen worship: my dear colleague Robert. His take on this particular meeting of shred and orchestration will make up for the bulk of this article, so let me just wish you a wonderful first day of 2022 again as I yield the stage to him.
Where do I even begin? Well, I should probably go back to where it all started, no? If this was a movie, we’d have one of those cliché moments where it all begins in the middle of some mess, the frame freezes; someone says something about how we’d be wondering how it ended up like this, we get that stock record scratch sample, and everything rewinds to the start.
Sorry not sorry for going so far back, but to me at least, it’s important enough to do so. This particular thread begins when I was about 11 or 12. On some random afternoon at his house, my cousin showed me, or rather introduced me to the works of Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, and Yngwie Malmsteen. I never cared much for Satriani, not then, not now, but it was an entirely different deal with the other two. I started digesting and fully appreciating Vai only much later, well after I was already over my fascination with Malmsteen. Malmsteen appealed to basically everything in me: the gloriously blazing shredding, the over the top demeanor, the epic and larger than life atmosphere. For a kid growing up on Iron Maiden, Metallica, Judas Priest, and other stuff in that vicinity on one side, then with stuff like Bach, Beethoven, Vivaldi, and Mozart on the other, this was a mind-boggling and eye-opening experience.
I don’t generally get nostalgic over much, but the stuff I do get that feeling for, it’s something truly amazing. I remember even now, with incredible detail, the first Malmsteen song I heard was “Black Star”. I was simply floored. I think that back then I overused every possible variation of ‘wow’, ‘whoa’ and the likes of it. At the time, it was the single most important and awe-inspiring moment in my musical life; it was the second massive gateway into many musical worlds. As I progressed chronologically from Rising Force towards the then newest record, Unleash the Fury, I obviously got stuck around many repeats of certain songs and the wonder of discovery.
Eventually, once I made my way through the late ’90s and made it into the early 00s, I passed through Concerto Suite for Electric Guitar and Orchestra. The studio version of the record feels sterile, and it felt like that even then. There was nothing appealing to it besides the idea of it. Little did I know that three years later, in 2002, a live version was released, together with the New Japan Philharmonic. So, Concerto Suite for Electric Guitar and Orchestra in E flat minor LIVE with the New Japan Philharmonic was a hugely transformative experience as well for me. The two things that heavily shaped me musically, metal and classical music, were united for the first time in my life, under the grandiose guise of a brilliant concerto.
I listened to it so many times that the songs are still burned inside my head. Even now, as I’m relistening to it to ‘freshen up’, as I’m writing all of this, I’m nodding and humming along to the tunes on time. While the record features mostly fresh material, it does have some orchestral renditions of older songs. The opener, “Black Star Overture”, is a wonderful orchestral rendition of one of his most famous songs. It’s nothing like a game-changer in the grand scheme of things, but I still feel that to this day, it’s a lovely symphonic piece, which only does further justice to the original version by complementing it through itself. I also feel that it’s one of his songs that, in either version, aged gracefully as classics.
As the overture ends gently, we are met with a flurry of shredding. “Trilogy Suite Op.5, The First Movement” is basically just mindless scales and arpeggios laid on top of some impactful orchestration. It’s the bludgeoning suite, if you ask me. I liked it a lot back in the day, as I never had contact with this type and level of guitar playing, especially within the context of symphonic music, but it aged like milk and it holds practically no value other than rehashing themes and ideas found in Bach’s music. Luckily, it’s short and we quickly get to move on to the more tasteful stuff. The orchestral version of “Brothers” is a good fit; of his older songs, this was a nice pick in the opening segment of the ‘concerto’.
One of the biggest highlights, if not the biggest (to me) is “Icarus Dream Fanfare”. I feel like it derived a fair deal from “Icarus’ Dream Suite Op. 4” from Rising Force, as well as from its origin, “Adagio in G minor”, commonly attributed as one of Tomaso Albinoni‘s compositions. Anyway, “Icarus Dream Fanfare” really lives up to its name. It scintillates with a stunning force, reaching for the sun, surrounded by a celestial fanfare, thunderously crashing into the star as it wraps up its arc. This is a piece I will practically never tire of and I revisit it regularly. It’s glorious in a way few things manage to be.
“Cavallino Rampante” more or less follows the mood and delivery set by “Icarus Dream Fanfare”, making use of a more cursive phrasing as far as the string section is concerned and emphasizing melody on the guitar, rather than just purely shredding and showing off. I used to love this song a lot, but I feel like it lost its sheen and charm over time. There’s nothing truly memorable about it at the end of the day, unless you count that break of sorts, which lands at the beginning and end. Also, I guess that, ultimately, it’s there to just add some mileage to the record as we enter its middle section.
As we enter “Fugue”, though, we definitely start to see more of a resemblance to an actual concerto, with the guitar fitting more closely in the role of a lead instrument rather than a mouthpiece for showcasing prowess. I would be remiss if I wouldn’t also mention that the choir is a splendid touch and we’ll be hearing more of it – thankfully. The general flow of music glides neatly from our fugue into “Prelude to April”, which makes the best use of the choir while also changing our lead instrument. Malmsteen starts playing on a semi-hollow nylon string acoustic guitar. He, of course, cannot help himself but shred on it as well, although it has a lovely sound to it, very elegantly complementing the orchestral arrangement. “Toccata” continues this thread and mood, with little else of note. These are some of my favorites as well, mostly due to that nylon string acoustic, “Toccata” less so than “Prelude to April”, as it’s more of the shredfest we witnessed on “Trilogy Suite Op.5, The First Movement”.
Diving into “Andante” we can definitely pick up on a structure and phrasing that we’ll find in a symphony or a concerto, lending more credibility to the whole ‘concerto’ nomenclature of the album. “Andante” is one of those songs I listened to so often that I started hating it, only to stop listening to it/skipping it until I missed it and then repeated the cycle ad nauseam. There’s something timeless and thespian about the song that I can’t appropriately put into words. It’s definitely one of the highlights of the record. I have a distinct feeling that it was built from ideas left over from Rising Force, but there’s nothing to confirm that hunch. Oddly enough, this is followed by “Sarabande”, which would’ve honestly made much more sense as a continuation to “Toccata” instead. I don’t even feel the need to expand on that – just listen.
“Allegro”, “Adagio”, “Presto”, and “Presto Vivace” sort of just blend together even after only a few listens. This is, I assume, supposed to be our ending segment for the concerto. I would’ve honestly lumped all of these into one track, or two at most, and left it at that. “Allegro” and “Adagio” abide by basically none of the meaning behind the implied tempo designations, as it tends to be customary in classical music, leaving that ‘concerto’ in the album title a little more hollow than it’s supposed to be. “Allegro” isn’t fast enough if you ask me, nor does it feel like it’s played particularly quick and bright as the term would require. “Adagio” is too fast, as I see it, and I’m not feeling the ‘great expression’, which is usually implied in the case of this term. It feels like it’s played as a continuation of “Allegro”, although you could make this case for all the rest, as neither really get there. “Presto” is most definitely not presto in any sense, while “Presto Vivace” is definitely vivace as hell, though similarly nowhere near presto. Listen to Vivaldi’s Summer (presto) interpreted by Anne Sophie Mutter and her ensemble if you want to hear real presto.
Anyway, I like to rag on this part of the record, as it never really did anything for me – let’s face it, it was just an excuse for Malmsteen to further show off. It could’ve definitely been trimmed down to give a less bloated feeling. In terms of action, you’re not going to miss anything much, as it’s basically the same ideas recycled. I mean, I wasn’t a fan of this part of the record when I was a kid, let alone now! “Finale” closes the studio version of the record, and it’s definitely an apt closer, with a heavily grandiose and impetuous demeanor. Although, it’s hardly the end for the live version. We still have two songs to go!
The orchestral renditions of “Blitzkrieg” and “Far Beyond the Sun” are what’s left of the highlights of the record. In its original incarnation, “Blitzkrieg” is a fairly stock song, even by Malmsteen’s repertoire’s standards. It’s just more of that crazy and mindless shredding we know all too well. The orchestral rendition, though, is super epic and really makes the title of the song fit, especially with the blazing shredmania which starts in the third minute of the song during its climax. The brass section lends it a lot of its weight, alongside the strings. “Far Beyond the Sun”, another one of Malmsteen’s most famous songs, also off of Rising Force, really makes for a nice ending to this live concert. There’s really nothing to add to that – it’s a classic, with a very sweet and appropriate orchestral makeover, doing what it does best. I really loved this bit as well.
While there have been plenty of rock and metal bands doing the ‘meet the orchestra’ treatment before and after Malmsteen’s personal attempt, I believe that (although I may be wrong, so please don’t quote me on this) Malmsteen was the first one that legitimately worked the entire content of the album as an orchestral/symphonic composition, with the lead guitar specifically as a lead instrument. Sure, Steve Vai did a much better job with his idea around this concept three years later in 2005 with the Holland Metropole Orchestra, but that’s besides the point. As Malmsteen was one of the initiators of shredding in rock and metal, I feel like he also contributed with this concerto, opening up further the idea that symphonic music shouldn’t be just what it was for centuries. Sure, many could argue there would be other more noteworthy influences for this particular thing, and I’d agree, but my point is that he added to this as well.
Malmsteen definitely didn’t manage to evolve as a musician past a certain point, with his works gradually degrading more and more in quality over the past fifteen years, now being mere husks of what they used to be. I guess not everyone can grow and age gracefully. While it’s a shame it happened like this, especially in the case of such a talented performer, his legacy seems to stand the test of time, and he will be remembered for his contributions as well as his vast oeuvre. I for one definitely will never be able to forget.