Dr. John Covach Interviews Yngwie
For years, Yngwie Malmsteen's many devoted fans have complained that the magnificent Swede's music has never been treated with the kind of musically informed respect it so richly deserves. Good news: Guitar World has heard, and Guitar World has listened. Here, music scholar, educator, and author John Covach answers the challenge and gives Yngwie his critical due.
"Going for Baroque"
by John Covach
Reprinted from Guitar World, June 1998.
John Covach is an Associate Professor of Music at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he teaches music theory and popular music. He is Co-Editor of "Understanding Rock: Essays in Musical Analysis," published by Oxford University Press, and has written numerous academic articles on rock music, twelve-tone music, and the philosophy of music. He also writes a regular column for "Progression," a quarterly fanzine devoted to progressive rock.
At the heavy metal marriage of baroque music and rock and roll, Yngwie Malmsteen is often accused of holding the shotgun. Universally acknowledged as the prime mover and shaker, if not the father, of neoclassical guitar, Malmsteen established himself in the early Eighties as one of the most influential--as well as colorful--artists in heavy metal. His stylistic trademark has always been the use of harmonic and melodic elements derived from classical composers like Antonio Vivaldi and J.S. Bach, combined with a penchant for aggressive technical display in the tradition of 19th Century virtuosi such as Niccolo Paganini. Stylistic hybrids abound in the history of rock music, but perhaps no combination seems more unlikely than that of classical music and heavy metal--could two styles have more dissimilar audiences?
Yngwie has been able to pull if off musically, though not always with great commercial success. After almost a decade with Polydor and Mercury Records and a string of moderately successful releases (Odyssey even made the Top 40 on Billboard's album chart for two weeks in 1988), Malmsteen switched labels, bringing out Fire and Ice with Elektra in 1992. Unfortunately, this was to be Yngwie's last release on a major label for a few years, though he continued to record for smaller independent labels.
The most interesting of these later albums is his Inspiration (Foundation) from 1996. Featuring cover versions of songs by groups and artists from whom he took his greatest inspiration, the album includes material originally recorded by Deep Purple, Rainbow, and Jimi Hendrix.
"The whole album was put together for fun," Yngwie laughs. "I just called up some friends and said, 'Hey, I have a studio. Do you want to come over?'" While Ritchie Blackmore and Jimi Hendrix have exerted an influence on Malmsteen's guitar playing in obvious ways, Inspiration also includes his take on tracks from progressive rockers Kansas, Rush, and U.K. That Yngwie chose to do an album entirely made up of such cover versions speaks of a healthy respect for Sixties and Seventies rock that parallels his great reverence for classical music. This particular blend of groups also suggests something about the range of rock influences that have worked upon Malmsteen over the years--a range that is perhaps broader than his critics might expect.
But Malmsteen is back on the major-label scene again, and he is blazing with a double-barreled assault. While his newest album, Facing the Animal, has been issued worldwide through Mercury/Polydor, the flamboyant guitarist is also preparing the release of a large-scale classical work, his Concerto Suite for Electric Guitar and Orchestra in Eb minor, Op. 1. Clocking in at about 50 minutes, this impressive multi-movement suite features Malmsteen playing both electric and acoustic guitar. As he played a recording of substantial excerpts from his work for me in the New York offices of Mercury Records, it was clear that Malmsteen is very proud of the piece: "You've got to hear the whole thing. I went full-out this time!"
The Concerto Suite reveals a lot about Yngwie as a musician, in a traditional sense. He is not conservatory-trained in music: what he understands about classical music he has picked up almost entirely by ear. He did not compose the piece according to formal models learned in music theory or composition classes; instead, he imitated the baroque music he has listened to since he was a boy in Sweden. "The notes came totally naturally to me. Things like that are so ingrained in my head; I've listened to it since I was a little kid."
It is clear from Yngwie's description of this music and the way he composed it that he is able to hear entire musical textures in his head. He doesn't just hear his guitar lines over a basic harmonic or rhythmic pattern; he hears all the parts. Ironically, many students complete graduate degrees in major music departments without ever acquiring this level of aural imaging. It would seem then, that Yngwie is simply hard-wired for music, and the Concerto Suite will convince many listeners that there's more to Malmsteen's musical gifts than connecting the dots on the guitar neck.
The Concerto Suite is not a slavish attempt to imitate classical music; in fact, it is precisely the way it blends rock with classical music that makes it compelling. Bringing these two worlds together was not without its technical problems, however. The volume needed by Malmsteen to obtain the desired guitar tone was too loud to allow him to record on stage with the orchestra; when he turned the volume down, the rattling of his jewelry was picked up on the microphones during the quieter passages. Yngwie's solution was to record the guitar parts later, though this presented the significant challenge of working without the benefit of seeing the conductor. He also had the orchestral instruments recorded on multiple tracks so that he could blend the ensemble after the guitar was added. In the world of classical music, in which recording engineers work to create the illusion of the single ambient space of the concert hall, pop-style multi-track mixing and overdubbing are more the exception than the rule.
Malmsteen's respect for musical tradition is most obvious in his career-long fascination with classical music, and the Concerto Suite is simply the most recent manifestation of this tendency. Yngwie's respect for the rock tradition comes to the fore when he discusses Deep Purple, Rainbow, and, surprisingly perhaps, the British progressive rockers of the Seventies. Malmsteen admits that it was Genesis that really turned him on to classical music. If the image of a pre-pubescent Yngwie grooving to the strains of "Watcher of the Skies" seems strange, it's probably because Eighties heavy metal is usually not thought to be much indebted to Seventies progressive music. And it is worth noting that Malmsteen does not feel that he was influenced by progressive rock guitarists like King Crimson's Robert Fripp or Yes virtuoso Steve Howe ("no influence at all," he claims); it was the way these groups used classical music in a rock context that inspired him.
Maybe it's something about growing up European, but Yngwie seems to enjoy engaging the past to create new music. Both new CDs do this, each in its own distinctive way. In his own way, then, Malmsteen is a traditionalist: "You have to remember," he says, "I make my living playing a piece of wood."
I had the chance to speak with Yngwie at some length when he was in New York recently. Our conversation covered such topics as the new album, the Concerto Suite, Yngwie's relationship with classical music, and his admiration for Seventies progressive rock.
Guitar World:You have a new CD out called Facing the Animal. How would you compare it to your other releases?"
Yngwie Malmsteen: This album is definitely, by any standard, the most song-oriented, and I think where I've really matured is in the songwriting. And coming along with songwriting is my guitar playing as well, because my guitar playing is basically instant composition. I improvise everything, always. I never have a figured-out note from any solo. When it comes to solos, I truly play what I feel is the best thing for the song. I'm not saying there's not enough shredding on this album, because there certainly is. But the songs themselves are very, very strong.
I mean, my songwriting has certainly taken a quantum leap with this one, whether it's the ballad I dedicate to my beautiful woman, "Like an Angel," to more suggestive, simplistic music, like the title track. There's not much to it, but it does say a lot anyway. Then you have more advanced tracks like "Braveheart" or "My Resurrection." I've gone into 7/4, different time signatures and stuff with "Enemy." There's a lot of variety here--I think it's an album that a lot of people can enjoy, quite simply because it isn't "same-y." It sounds fresh and it feels fresh. And that's hard to do after 15 albums!
GW: It seems that the keyboards play a more active role on this album; there's a lot of nice interplay that harkens back to your earlier records like Rising Force.
Malmsteen: Maybe. There are a lot of keyboards on the records. Mats [Olausson] is a great keyboard player--he's been in my band longer than I have, it seems. He just doesn't cause any trouble and he's a sweetheart. He's a very good guy--and an incredible player. When we were recording the end of "Another Time," I said, "Hey, why don't you take this solo?"
Of course, with all these brand-new synthesizers that are out now, the cello samples and stuff, you can really orchestrate your rock albums quite a lot. It's a wonderful thing. For example, the opening to "Like an Angel" is obviously played on keyboards.
GW: Will you tour with the band that's on the album?
Malmsteen: Yes. I'm really happy about [drummer] Cozy Powell. He drives the bus, man.
GW: In a way, Cozy is a connection between your present and the bands you admired most as a kid.
Malmsteen: The first rock show I ever saw was Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow, the Rising tour, with Cozy on drums and Ronnie Dio on vocals. I was 12 when I saw it. I couldn't believe it. I thought it was the best thing I'd ever seen.
GW: Have you ever spent any time with Ritchie Blackmore?
Malmsteen: Not very much, no. I hung out with him one night--we had a few drinks--and he was very nice. That was like 10 years ago, and since then I haven't really had the opportunity to hang with him.
GW: There's been some interesting academic writing on heavy metal music by people like the sociologist Deena Weinstein and the musicologist Robert Walser. Are you familiar with much of this?
GW: Walser, for instance, places you in a succession of virtuoso metal guitarists beginning with Ritchie Blackmore, continuing with Randy Rhoads and Eddie Van Halen, and leading to you. He characterizes you as the metal guitarist who most thoroughly incorporates classical music into his playing. Any reactions to this?
Malmsteen: To be honest with you, I never really lumped myself into what anyone else has been doing. I've also been sort of going my own way. I'm definitely not into trends, and if whatever I do falls into a trend, then that's fine. But that's not something I deliberately did, you see? I think that there is some good heavy metal and I think there's a lot of bad heavy metal. And I think what differentiates me from all of the other people is that I deliberately incorporate a lot of melody into my playing. It may be as heavy and aggressive, but it's always melodic.
GW: I'm interested in your new piece for guitar that you recorded with the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, Concerto Suite for Electric Guitar and Orchestra in Eb minor, Op. 1. When did you compose the piece and what motivated you to undertake such an ambitious project?
Malmsteen: I've always been heavily influenced by classical music, mostly by baroque music, but I'm not so crazy about newer classical stuff. Everyone else seems to be the other way around. Since I was a kid, basically, I've always been heavily into baroque classical music, but before I was into that I was into rock, so I've always sort of fused them together. All of my rock albums have an element of classical music--all of them. For 10 years--maybe more--I've been thinking about one day doing something with an orchestra, but in a very specifically different way from the approach taken by other so-called rock bands.
ELP or Deep Purple, for example, would play rock and have the orchestra play along with them, which was exactly what I didn't want to do. My idea was to compose something very close to orthodox classical music and just replace the violin or flute, or whoever the soloist is, with myself. In other words, have no rock drums, no rock vocals, not even any rock chord progressions--nothing like that.
Of course, the guitar would have to have some distortion to give it sustain, but everything's single notes. My playing ends up being a 50-minute guitar solo, more or less. A lot of it is written out and a lot of it is improvised. I started writing the piece in '96. I would just come up with an idea in my head or on the guitar and, with my keyboard player in my studio, come up with a theme or a group of themes. As soon as I came up with it I'd just put it down on tape. Then I'd start orchestrating it with him.
I'd stop playing guitar at that moment and hum him parts: "Here's what I'd like the contrabasses to do." Each instrument, everything from the strings, woodwinds, and the brass, and I would be specific. After that, I would have these tapes sent to a gentleman named David Rosenthal, who's actually a rock keyboard player but is very good at that--writing things out. And actually some of the things I had written for the instruments fell outside their range. I didn't know that!
GW: Why did you decide to structure this piece as a suite, in a series of smaller movements, rather than as, say, three larger, symphonic ones?
Malmsteen: When I started doing this I came up with so many themes that I felt were good that I didn't want to throw them all in one basket, as it were. I'd rather have them each as a proper movement.
GW: The suite has a fugue movement.
Malmsteen: The fugue? Yeah, that one is one of my favorites.
GW: Did you consciously compose that piece according to traditional fugal practice?
Malmsteen: Yes, but to compose a fugue of the caliber of Johann Sebastian Bach--I would never ever say that I would be able to do that. This one has a lot of shit going on, but it's nothing like that. It is very much influenced by Bach--I can say that.
GW: How did you work out the details of recording the piece with the symphony orchestra?
Malmsteen: The original plan was always to record the orchestra separately in order for me to get a proper guitar sound.
GW: Because the guitar would be too loud?
Malmsteen: Yeah, and it's something we're going to have to solve in the future for the live performance. But for the time being, I think what we did was the right thing to do. I also insisted that we record the orchestra on multi-track, instead of the orthodox way to do it, on two tracks. So I had control over the whole orchestra.
GW: So you could blend the orchestra at the mix-down stage?
Malmsteen: Because once the guitar comes in, the whole sonic picture changes. The guitar has more open notes than any other acoustic instrument. So the mixing procedure and all that actually went quite well.
GW: Was it tough to play along with the orchestra once the parts had already been recorded? At that stage you didn't have the benefit of watching the conductor for tempo, right?
Malmsteen: It was very difficult, I must say. By any standard, this is definitely the most difficult thing I've done. And I'm quite pleased with it actually--I'm happy that I pulled it off--because at one point I started thinking maybe I had bitten off a little too much, more than I could chew, you know?
GW: How did you like working with orchestral musicians? Others who've done so, like Frank Zappa and Ritchie Blackmore, have been pretty outspoken about their sense that these musicians tend not to take such projects with rock musicians very seriously.
Malmsteen: No, to me it was just wonderful. They seemed to like me a lot, and I had no problem with them. It was funny. We recorded from 10 to 1 in the Dvorak Hall in Prague--a beautiful, stunning place. Then from 1 to 2 there'd be a break and, afterwards, we'd record again from 2 to 5. All together it was six hours a day for three days. In the beginning I was a little bit worried because they just couldn't get it together. The pieces were a little too difficult for them, I think. And I got a little nervous. In the hour between 1 and 2, they would go down to a cafeteria or bar downstairs and start pounding the beer, and that worried me even more. But every time they did that they came back and played better. So it was a pretty relaxed situation.
GW: Were you worried that they might not take your project seriously because you're a rock guitar player, as Zappa and others have complained?
Malmsteen: To be quite honest with you, I think they probably would have thought that way about me, too, if the piece wasn't the way it is. Because the piece doesn't sound like the work of a rock guitar player.
GW: Let's talk about your early relationship with classical music as a kid growing up in Stockholm. As is the case in many European countries, classical music is both popular and respected in Sweden. You were probably exposed to a lot more of it when you were young than the average kid in the U.S. would have been.
Malmsteen: That's for sure. You know, vignettes for radio or TV programs would almost always be classical music, whether something as common as Beethoven's Fifth Symphony or a Bach violin concerto. Of course, my mother had more than 200 records of classical music, so I would always listen to them, mainly baroque stuff.
GW: Did you ever attend concerts of baroque music?
Malmsteen: Many, many, many times. My aunt was the head of the box office at the Royal Concert Hall in Stockholm, so I would always get in for free. I could go as many times as I wanted.
GW: When you were first listening to rock, were you ever attracted to progressive rock groups like Emerson, Lake & Palmer or Yes--groups that blended rock music with classical?
Malmsteen: Yeah, I liked Jethro Tull. I thought that was a very good scene, what was going on with those bands. I really like them. It's funny because I lost interest in pop music very early on. Because what I really loved in Deep Purple in the beginning--I got my first Deep Purple album when I was eight--was the aggression, the power, the sound. I thought it was amazing. But by the time I was about 10 years old, I could play everything they did, easily.
But then my older sister, she brought home Trespass and Selling England by the Pound and those early records from Genesis. And that's what really turned me on to classical music. I listened to what they did and thought, "Oh, what is that? Inverted chords and counterpoint… this is great! This is not blues." So I started listening to my mother's classical records, and from then on, it all sort of went backwards. Unlike a lot of people who get classical training and then get into rock, I did it the other way around.
GW: You started with rock and then got into classical.
GW: But that music was part of the broader scene that also included Yes' Fragile and Genesis. Things seemed less divided in the early Seventies than they subsequently became; maybe it was easier to move between styles.
Malmsteen: I know, those were the golden days.
GW: It's interesting, your connection to Genesis.
Malmsteen: My sister always brought home new records. She got me my first Deep Purple records, too. But what you say about that style--that it wasn't so much a barrier--is clearly true. Like ELP, they were rock, sort of, everybody said. But they weren't, not really. They didn't even have a guitar player. But they all branched out, Tull and all those bands. I thought they were great.
GW: So what led to Barrie Barlow's playing on your first album?
Malmsteen: The manager I had at the time used to be the manager for Jethro Tull.
GW: And how was Barrie to work with?
Malmsteen: He was a gem. He was great. He wanted to kill me, though, because of the ending to "Far Beyond the Sun." All drummers that I try to teach that to… it's like [it has] no count. [demonstrates on the table top] That's how it goes. It's not like anything. And he was a sweetheart, you know, he wouldn't kill me. But he said [affects a British accent], "I can't believe you make me do this! Aargh! I played the most difficult things with Ian Anderson and you make me do this!"