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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.