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When I was 11 or 12, I came upon a copy of Yngwie Malmsteen's debut "Rising Force". I had never heard anything quite like it before, and within a month of being exposed to Malmsteen's music, I went out and got my first guitar. Although neoclassical shred metal is no longer a significant part of my musical vocabulary, it goes without saying that Malmsteen's music has had a huge influence on me, both as a musician and a listener. With that in mind, it's all the more of a disappointment to hear Malmsteen in such a stagnant place with his career. Although there was that concerto he did with a symphonic orchestra some years back, Yngwie has tended to stick close to his comfort zone when it's come to the release of new music. Perhaps even moreso than the rest of his new millennium material, 2012's "Spellbound" shows him reverting almost entirely to the largely instrumental sound he started with on "Rising Force". Although I would normally be thrilled to here more of the sort of music that first had me really appreciate the guitar as an instrument, it would be a fool's hope to think that, after years of relative mediocrity, he would achieve something anywhere as exciting. No; as could be expected, Malmsteen pulls out the same baroque stops that he's used to cruise on throughout his career. Add that to a less-than-impressive production standard, and you have an album that barely squeezes by on the merit of his legendary skill with guitar.
"Spellbound" kicks things off on its strongest note. The title track instantly plants Malmsteen in familiar territory; baroque shred patterns warm up the album as the rhythm section gradually swells. Before long, Malmsteen has made the dive into brushfire guitar soloing, eventually even tossing a recurring melodic idea the listener's way once he's had his fill of assaulting the fretboard. Particularly when it comes to his sweeps, it's instantly clear why Malmsteen has become such an icon in the shred metal world. His guitar tone is distinctive and rich, and there is an organic quality to the performance that is rarely heard in the next- gen shredders. In other words, there's no sense that the recording has been altered in any significant way to make Yngwie sound better than he actually is. Of course, especially at this point in his career, Yngwie's skill with guitar is not in question. Without a doubt, it's the best thing the album has going for it.
Although Yngwie has almost always flown under his own name, "Spellbound" has a certain honour of being a solo effort in the truest sense. On top of guitar, Yngwie performs everything here, including vocals on a few of the tracks. Normally, this would lead to complaints of the album in question being one-sided- of course, this was always the case for Malmsteen. Contrary to what I would have first thought, the backup arrangements are surprisingly well done. Although there's little complexity to anything outside of the guitars, the drums are effectively performed (or programmed?) and the subtle choral synths give an added classical atmosphere. Although his voice is nothing special, he has a decent mid range, well capable of holding a tune. Even more surprising however, is how weak the production itself has been left. Considering Malmsteen's resources and experience, the production feels decidedly hollow and plain. Barring the omnipresent shred, it's as if Malmsteen was on a strict budget here. Even the guitars fall victim to the subpar production; "Majestic 12 Suite" is filled with audible guitar buzz, the likes of which would be just as annoying in a high school garage jam. On a record from one of the greatest guitar legends though? It raises alot of questions.
Barring his baroque shredding, there's a handful of bluesier moments. However, regardless of style, all of "Spellbound" seems to suffer from the cardinal sin of much shred metal: it's a celebration of flash over substance. While "Rising Force" enjoyed excellent compositions that could have stayed afloat regardless of Yngwie's guitar wizardry, whatever writing that went on here is little more than a showcase for his shredding. Thankfully, that shredding is a great thing to behold. Fans of Malmsteen should check it out if they're in the mood for it, but it offers nothing that wasn't already done on the early albums in greater quality.
If the name on the CD label didn't clue anyone in, it is a foregone conclusion that any opus carrying the moniker of Malmsteen will be a predictable affair. While always having a consistent number of musicians surrounding him on stage and handling instruments he isn't versed on in the studio, all of the important decisions regarding composition, arrangement, and the like are made by him. With this comes an entrenched orthodoxy of Baroque and Classical period clichés that channel the likes of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Handel, and a host of other contemporaries of late 17th through early 19th century where the confines of tonality were fairly stylized and stringent. Naturally, being a product of the 80s, there's a fair amount of blues, rock and power/speed metal influences thrown in to give things a less antiquated feel, at least by modern standards, and there has been a steady evolution in recording sound in Yngwie's catalog, ranging in results from spellbinding to lackluster.
However, in the course of the year 2012, Yngwie has found himself living yet another cliché that is all too unique to his own near 30 year career, the exodus of a short-lived collaboration with an exceptional vocalist. But instead of filling the void left by Ripper Owens, Yngwie has decided to turn back the clock about 28 years and gone back to his roots, at least in part. The format that takes shape in "Spellbound" instantly reminds of the mostly instrumental character of the 1984 debut "Rising Force", comprised about 85% of instrumentals in varying styles typical to his extensive back catalog, and throwing in a few token songs with vocals as a passing gesture of sorts. But in contrast to the groundbreaking fury of 6 stringed madness that changed the world of shred forever in the mid 80s, the character of this album comes much closer to the early 90s sound heard on "Eclipse" and "Fire And Ice", though with a grander production and less of a reliance on overtly catchy refrain sections.
While not a certified collection of new classics, this album does have some fairly impressive instrumentals that possess a level of uniqueness and memorability, though being somewhat derivative of past classics. The general tendency is that the longer Yngwie goes with an instrumental, the better it tends to get, particularly if there is a broad yet coherent melodic structure to break up the many shred sections. "Majestic 12 Suite" definitely takes some cues from the "Trilogy Suite" and lays on a barrage of technically impressive guitar acrobatics, but is careful not to venture too far from the C.P.E. Bach formula that tends to dominate his faster work where an implicit tune is carried in between the streams of arpeggios and speed picking. "God Of War" also does a fair job of maintaining the same overall character, though it spends much more time in speed metal territory and only occasionally breaks into a slower, military march sound which is still, obviously enough, sugared almost to the point of hurting the teeth with an endless bombardment of notes.
Much of the rest of this album's contents falls more into the "adequate but nothing spectacular" category. The bluesy work on here generally comes off as overtly contrived, and consists of going through the motions first laid out by Yngwie's professed hero Jimi Hendrix, but superimposed on an 80s styled arrangement and cleansed of the noise-laden grit that typified the 60s rock icon. "Let's Sleeping Dog Lie" fares a bit better than the instrumental "Iron Blues" in that the use of vocal verses breaks up the overdone blues shredding, but both songs come off as extended versions of the intro to "Crystal Ball" off the "Odyssey" album. It should be noted that Yngwie's vocal work is actually quite competent, especially compared to other visible and comparable figures like Satriani and Vai who can barely eek out a single octave vocal range, let alone put any real expression to speak of. His vocal delivery on the 2 token speed metal nods to "Marching Out" dubbed "Poisoned Mind" and "Repent" reveal a gritty character not all that dissimilar from his original vocalist Jeff Scott Soto, though with about half the range and no signature banshee wails to draw upon. It's sufficient and well accomplished, though obviously nowhere near the level of intensity and flair that Mats Leven, Michael Viscera or Ripper brought to the fold, let alone the vocal company that Yngwie kept in the 80s.
This is a shred album, written for shred fans, and will probably not have anywhere the level of crossover appeal that most of Yngwie's well-known albums tend to have with fans of the Judas Priest traditional strain or the melodic power metal crowds of Germany, Sweden, Finland and Italy, all of whom have guitarists citing him as a chief influence. While definitely not the best thing that he's ever produced, it gets the job done, and definitely proves that Yngwie is always the first and last word on all things Yngwie, even when he himself is saying them.
This is the first album to feature Yngwie on vocals and I sincerely hope that it will be the last, even though only three songs feature vocals I'd really wish he had chosen a lead singer. I am however thrilled that Tim Owens is not the vocalist any more as I do not really think he fits Yngwie's music and throughout the course of an album I get tired of his vocals. Even before I heard this album and it was announced that Yngwie was doing the vocals I got some ticks, since he has done vocals on some tracks in the past like 'Look At You Now' from 'Relentless'. When I heard that song among others I must say I really crossed my fingers for that he would never release an album with himself doing the vocal job. But he did and as mentioned the vocals are only featured on three tracks, but I really hope that Mr. Malmsteen will realize by listening to this album that he need to step it up. Big time. No doubt he like listening to himself play, and it is impressive, no doubt, but we got it already. You can play guitar pretty good, but it really becomes a drag to listen to ten instrumental tracks because 'Relentless' was also filled up with instrumentals and I really had hoped that Yngwie soon would return to writing some good album oriented music if I can put it like that. Build the music around the vocals with some good guitar work instead of leaving us for dead listening to countless solos.
The title track actually sounds catching with a really good opening riff and then instead of vocals which would have fitted this track perfect as long as it isn't Yngwie's and Tim Owens'... Then it would have been a striking track. In a way that goes for the whole album, there's potential but instead of taking advantage of that it has just been filled up to the brim with solos... solos and solos. I must admit when listening to this album the first time I turned it off when I came to track number ten, because it was such a drag, and would probably only be interesting for people who want to play guitar like Yngwie Malmsteen. Besides all that, Yngwie does yet again play bass, and since he took that and the production over the bass has been sounding really good. But since this album is so solo oriented you can't really enjoy it to the fullest and a good showcase for that is the track 'Requiem for the Lost' where the solos just kicks the bass performance out of the picture even though specially on that track it gives a kind of atmospheric feel. If you are into blues then you might want to check out tracks like 'Let's Sleeping Dog Lie' and 'Iron Blues' which really were to my surprise as I wasn't really expecting blues to appear on this album. It doesn't really increase my opinion for this album, neither does it decrease it.
What bothers me most about the vocals is that they seem to have some sort of filter applied, I don't know if it autotune or something, but it really doesn't sound good, and in some choruses the backing vocals just sounds like five Yngwies at once. If you liked his vocals on some previous songs like 'Magic City' from 'Perpetual Flame' then I am almost certain you are going to disappointed when listening to this album. A lot of fans have been wanting some old vocalists back in the band, and that is understandable. Though it would be nice with a new vocalist that could swoop our legs away, and to be honest the only vocalist I would like to come back is Michael Vescera. Not saying that all the other vocalists are bad, but he is my definite favourite. Something I want to mention briefly is the drums because when there's some double pedal hammering or some other fast drumming with the pedals then the snare kind of drowns and fades a little.
I must say the covers that Yngwie has chosen for his albums the recent years have been really sloppy even though 'Perpetual Flame' had an okay cover, 'Relentless' looked like something a fifteen year old kid could have done in Photoshop. But when looking at covers like 'Attack!!' and 'Unleash the Fury' then you're bound for a facepalm. Spellbound obviously doesn't look like it has been painted but unlike the predecessor it has been structured a lot better and ended up looking really good!
I don't even know how the hell to sum up this album because I'm so torn. Yngwie's music has earned a huge place in my life, and I look forward to each album he releases with excitement, and I probably will again despite the disappointment. Which it really is, there is not that much I want to point out and recommend besides the title track 'Spellbound', 'Nasca Lines' and 'God of War'. Though the last mentioned track is a little too long it got some really good potential.
At the time I think this album is unnecessary and maybe The Rising Force should have waited releasing this album until late 2013. This album needs a proper vocalist and it could have been a lot better and musically the focus has been aimed way too much at the solos. Which was something Yngwie kind of got away from at least when looking at the albums with Owens so it definitely is a step down. Hopefully Yngwie will use his brains some more the next time and advance were he left off with 'Relentless' and 'Perpetual Flame' which focused more on the music, vocals and good song making instead of only solos. Those albums just needed a better vocalist, maybe there's some hope in the future.