REVIEW: YNGWIE MALMSTEEN – “Parabellum”
Yngwie Malmsteen positions his new record as the result of being able to take “much longer in the studio, both to write and record,” due to the pandemic, and he “feel(s) (that) the album has benefited enormously as a result.” Unable to verify whether session musicians were involved, I can only conclude that this record is the result of Yngwie working alone, potentially with just an engineer and a drum machine. If a drummer was involved, props to him or her for the mechanical levels of prowess. As a result, Yngwie has crafted a record where free from collaborators, he plays all the notes. Obviously, this works on multiple levels as his fleet-fingered guitar wizardry and unmistakable tone and phrasing is on full display on a record that rarely comes up for a breath.
“Wolves at the Door” starts the record off strong with the kind of a classic neo-classical pop-metal that is firmly in Yngwie’s wheelhouse. The first 60 seconds of guitar fury introduces a minor key old-school metal tune that respectfully evokes his first two records.
In the vast majority of “vocal” songs in Yngwie’s catalog, the vocals serve the dual purpose of widening the music’s appeal and serving as a stopgap between extreme displays of instrumental prowess. “Wolves at the Door” is no different. The biggest surprise here is not that Yngwie’s guitar chops have not dulled at all over the years, but that he’s a decent singer!
I guess he’s been performing vocals live for years now, and I have no opinion on that, but on record, he sounds great. I hear lots of vocal layering, echo, and delay, but I don’t hear any obvious auto-tune, and while the lyrics are by the numbers, the melodies and performances are spot on. Yngwie’s records have included some incredible singers over the years including Jeff Scott Soto, Mark Boals, and Joe Lynn Turner, and while Yngwie can’t exactly compete with any of them, it’s worth noting that the melodies and phrasing sound consistent with his back catalog. This solidifies that Yngwie may have had a bigger part in writing the vocal parts on his collaborative records than some previous singers have argued.
“Relentless Fury” follows in “Wolves at the Door’s” footsteps. Its greater focus on brevity and songcraft puts it more in the realm of the celebrated ‘Trilogy’ or ‘Odyssey’ records, and it proves to be one of the record’s best tracks.
Rounding out the “vocal” tracks are “Eternal Bliss” and “Fight the Good Fight.” The former is an excellent moody ballad with big vocal harmonies on a suitably big chorus, acoustic nylon-string arpeggios, and leads, and a convincingly dark and foreboding vibe. The latter is a solid prototypical sword and sorcery Yngwie stomper, notable in its reliance on synths that aren’t actual synths. Yngwie himself is adamant to point out in the press junket that, “I can assure you that, while it may seem as if there are keyboards, everything has been done by me on guitar.”
The other 60% of the record contains instrumental tracks that display very high levels of technical prowess and a very little melody.
The instrumental “side” of the record kicks off with “Presto Vivace in C# Minor,” which humorously translates to “Fast Fast in C# Minor.”
I am the furthest thing from an expert in Classical music, but this song with its descending bassline, choppy rhythms, and “prestissimo” (“very quick”) guitar runs is reminiscent of Yngwie’s beloved Bach’s baroque harpsichord concertos. Suitably, Wikipedia identifies that the first uses of the term ‘baroque’ to describe music were criticisms. The Wikipedia article goes on to identify “an anonymous, satirical review of an opera” from 1734 in which the critic used the term to say that “the music lacked coherent melody, was filled with unremitting dissonances, constantly changed key and meter, and speedily ran through every compositional device.” This is a slightly unfair assessment of these musically complex compositions, but some of it rings true.
A couple of tracks do rise above the din. One is the excellently titled title-track “(Si Vis Pacem) Parabellum” (“If you want peace, prepare for war”), and the other is the stunning record closer “Sea of Tranquility.”
The bombastic and melodically memorable intro and aggressive, driving double time of the verses of the title track is classic Yngwie. A sonic maelstrom of a track, it does a fantastic job of portraying its title. Surprisingly, it is on the neoclassical workouts like this one that I most miss the playful interplay that a Yngwie foil-like former keyboardist Jens Johannson or Jens’ brother and former Rising Force drummer Anders Johansson would bring.
The epic “Sea of Tranquility” mixes things up with a brilliantly incorporated stumbling melodic reference to Tchaikovsky’s ‘The Nutcracker’ amidst a raging sea of lightning-fast arpeggios and harmonic minor runs. Ultimately, the record would have benefited from a lot more of these creative variations.
On ‘Parabellum,’ Yngwie Malmsteen’s 21st studio record, the legendary shredder successfully defends his position as one of the most accomplished all-time technicians on a record that’s equal parts self-indulgent and masterfully executed.