Twiddle me this, twiddle me that. The release of a new album from Yngwie J. Malmsteen – the true King of Sweden – is these days accompanied by a quivering trepidation: a combination of giddy schoolboy excitement in anticipation of guaranteed guitar sorcery, mostly satisfied resignation over the generally middling composition that has so characterised late-era Baroque ‘n’ Roll, and impending dread as to just downright odd (and sometimes simply unlistenable) production choices. Which Yngwie would prevail this time, the bitterly divided and admittedly dwindling legion of the Malmsteen faithful prepared to ask itself, sabres drawn to each other’s throats before as much as a single of the many hundreds of thousands of notes to come is heard, one and all convinced they are the true cognoscenti of the Malmsteen genius?
It’s a serious issue, this, because Malmsteen aficionados are typically divided between true believers, nostalgic romantics, and sour critics. The fact is that Yngwie Malmsteen remains as controversial as ever, if no longer as much for the planetary ego, decidedly un-Swedish outspokenness, or legendary shenanigans, and more for the contentious style of composition and economical production the Maestro has largely deployed in the latter half of a now 40-plus year recording career. It has been a bewildering and peculiar turn for a musician who birthed a new musical genre in neo-classical Heavy Metal and once produced some of the lushest Hard Rock imaginable with sumptuous production values, careful arrangements, and the whole ‘80’s nine yards, all the while being responsible for a combination of composition and virtuosity to make his idols Paganini, Vivaldi et. al. blush with pride.
Today, however, the famously mismanaged guitar prodigy subsides on a combination of his legendary monomania in caring almost uniquely about outdoing himself technically with nary a traditional song structure in sight, and saving on expenses in devastating times for the music industry by doing everything himself – to the extent that the only other musician on Parabellum is an extended family member on drums. That the fine balance of mind-blowing playing still elegantly serving the song with the perfect pinch of emotion has largely been replaced by even more mind-blowing playing but with few of the carefully layered songwriting dynamics of old is not the artist’s concern: only his own vision is. This is fair enough, personal preferences aside, and either which way, objections that he would benefit from a critical producer and collaborating with artists of his own stature will anyway always be met with the standard retort, famously along the lines of: “You think Leonardo Da Vinci just allowed someone to add stuff to his paintings?”
It’s a welcome relief, then, that Parabellum (but seriously, buy it) has a number of things to recommend it, though however counterintuitively, it requires some effort from the listener to try to understand what the Maestro is up to beyond the immediate wall of bumblebee-in-a-jar bombardment of thousands of notes. The fact is that Malmsteen still innovates and has fresh musical ideas unfortunately lost to the casual listener due to his own insistence on always playing from within his own stupefying paradigm. Accepted for what it is, then, how does Parabellum stack up to the rest of our very own Heavy Metal Leonardo’s catalogue?
Of a more-restrained-than-usual 10 songs, Parabellum follows the pattern in recent years with 6 of the 10 being instrumental and more of a musician’s showcase, and the other four following more “traditional” songwriting structures featuring (Yngwie’s own, of course) vocals. “Wolves At The Door” announces itself like a wasp on a thousand-sting rampage and a not-unpleasant quintessential shred of harmonic minor scalloped fury, also featuring a decently memorable chorus only faintly dented by Malmsteen’s slightly nasal voice (but largely improved vocals). With “Presto Vivace in C# Minor”, Yngwie reverts to his fondness for auto-plagiarism, here re-treading the memorable “Presto Vivace” (but not in C# Minor!) from his aeonian Concerto Suite for Electric Guitar and Orchestra in E Flat Minor Op. 1 and whose central neo-classicism first appeared on “Vengeance” from 1995’s Magnum Opus, appearing on studio albums at least five times since (!)
Things improve immediately, though, with “Relentless Fury”, the best song on the album – because it’s a real song! – and one that recalls the songwriting on 1990’s Eclipse no less, doom-laden, neo-gothic hooks tying you to the mast of a shipwreck-to-come under a blood red moon while more restrained licks and a budding pre-chorus help to prioritise the song, thereby making the solo more impressively effective as well.
Title track “(Si Vis Pacem) Parabellum” is in one sense a sop to the old guard with its ostinati nicely playing off against a furious duel between guitar and keys (spoiler: the guitar wins) with clear echoes of “Trilogy Suite Op. 5”, all the while trying to expand on it, and even features the odd “calm” interregnum, allowing notes to breathe a little more before it’s back off to the races. Rounding out the first half of the album, “Eternal Bliss” is a Malmsteen ballad in the purest sense, all melodramatic longing in the verses and happy-ending emission in the chorus, all of life’s troubles apparently resolved in a single song. No doubt dedicated to his wife (as usual) and the fact that Yngwie simply doesn’t have to give a flying Fender Strat Duck what anyone else thinks, this is unfortunately not quite on the level of “Forever One” from 1994’s The Seventh Sign, “Dreaming (Tell Me)” from 1988’s Odyssey, or even “Like An Angel” from 1998’s Facing The Animal, mostly because the flat production doesn’t really allow for those big ‘80’s choruses to shine through.
High kicking the second half of the album off with a leg in mid-air, “Toccata”, as its name suggests, is another virtuoso showcase with its rapid runs interlaced between high harmonic minors designed to showcase the various elements of Malmsteen’s style. This time it has little to do with the “Toccata” of his Guitar Concerto and is actually a different composition and a welcome instance where you can hear him both trying to break the speed of sound in all seriousness for his own edification while audibly having oodles of fun at the same time, which is one reason it works infectiously well as an instrumental. “God Particle” transports us back to more properly classical Yngwie and Bach-inspired ecclesiastical ideas in its introduction (though one suspects Yngwie was watching Angels and Demons and summarily concluded that he too must be a Big Bang combination of matter and subatomic antimatter), and then proceeds to deliver the best and most consistent, restrained ostinato on the album enveloped in tasteful diminishing arpeggios, making “God Particle” an album highlight.
“Magic Bullet” is a little lazy on the musical ideas despite its pulverising central riff, and so is “(Fight) The Good Fight”, the final vocal performance on the album clearly written around a rather languid chorus as an excuse for another excursus in self-indulgence from a man who can clearly do much better. But no matter, because the album concludes with the epic instrumental “Sea Of Tranquility”, which is anything but with a lovely counterpoint between guitar and keys set up acoustically before exploding into, finally, that long sought after balance between virtuosity and elegant refinement Yngwie does at his best, showered in Phrygian dominants and all the other magic we love him for. It also sounds happily reminiscent of the epic “Asylum” triple instrumental that concludes 1999’s Alchemy album (some would argue his last truly great opus).
This is not an immediate album, but it’s also not an immediately unlikeable album. It’s also not one that can be dismissed out of hand, as several other late efforts have come dangerously close to being. It takes several spins for a musical telescope to be held up, Galileo-style, to spot the ideas-within-the-ideas in the Yngwie firmament of a world turning on its own axis, though admittedly one must already be within its gravitational pull, which, granted, probably takes decades of Malmsteen worship at this point. But cutting through the immediate assault on the senses enables appreciation of the layering, the dynamics-within-the-dynamics, and the studious structuring, all nuance that’s very easy to overlook if you’re listening to this while otherwise occupied. One must try to think a little like the Maestro to grasp what he’s up to, but when one does, there are tricks and turns, fireworks for musicians galore, and new revelations for the rest of us hiding in plain sight just beneath the Vivaldi-on-a-kilo-of-cocaine instrumental surface.
Yngwie connoisseurs have long since accepted that the Icarus-like hubris of the man-guitar hybris is ultimately what propels the listener, well, far beyond the sun, letting them share just a small taste of the power and the glory, and falling just as far as the Master when it is not reached. Ultimately, though, there’s simply no way not to enjoy the man’s enjoyment of his own genius if you’ve already seen the light, tonight. Parabellum is better than his two most recent outings (World On Fire, Blue Lightning), far from a dud like his mid-2000’s efforts (Attack!, Unleash The Fury), but still doesn’t scrape the genius of Fire And Ice (his true Magnum Opus), Alchemy, or let alone Trilogy and his entire 80’s output. Happily, though, Parabellum is solidly on a level with Tim “Ripper” Owens-era resurrection albums Perpetual Fury and Relentless and, more recently, Spellbound, the best of his “I’ll-do-everything-myself-except-pay-the-bills” albums. The fat lady hasn’t sung yet, and even if she had, it’s unlikely Yngwie would let her be heard at all.
Yngwie Who? Yngwie FUCKING Malmsteen, that’s who. Unleash the foocking fury!
Don’t: listen to this while trying to work. Do: listen to this while driving your Ferrari.
7.5/10 by Yngwie standards, 8.5/10 by everyone else’s.