Neoclassical metal

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Neoclassical Metal is a sub-genre of metal music that draws strong influence from classical music in its playing and composition style. The most notable performer of the genre is Yngwie Malmsteen.

While neoclassical metal bands do exist, with a notable branch of the genre being neoclassical power metal, it is more commonly played by solo performers such as the aforementioned Yngwie Malmsteen. Instrumental artists are very common in the neoclassical metal genre.

Sub-genre collaborators (shared with Power Metal & US Power Metal):
  • DippoMagoo (leader)
  • adg211288
  • Sisslith

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CACOPHONY Speed Metal Symphony Album Cover Speed Metal Symphony
CACOPHONY
4.23 | 20 ratings
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YNGWIE J. MALMSTEEN Rising Force Album Cover Rising Force
YNGWIE J. MALMSTEEN
4.03 | 50 ratings
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MARTY FRIEDMAN Dragon's Kiss Album Cover Dragon's Kiss
MARTY FRIEDMAN
4.11 | 14 ratings
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YNGWIE J. MALMSTEEN Inspiration Album Cover Inspiration
YNGWIE J. MALMSTEEN
4.10 | 12 ratings
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YNGWIE J. MALMSTEEN Concerto Suite for Electric Guitar and Orchestra in E Flat Minor: Op. 1 Album Cover Concerto Suite for Electric Guitar and Orchestra in E Flat Minor: Op. 1
YNGWIE J. MALMSTEEN
3.97 | 12 ratings
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TONY MACALPINE Edge Of Insanity Album Cover Edge Of Insanity
TONY MACALPINE
3.86 | 9 ratings
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YNGWIE J. MALMSTEEN Alchemy Album Cover Alchemy
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3.83 | 11 ratings
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TONY MACALPINE Maximum Security Album Cover Maximum Security
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YNGWIE J. MALMSTEEN Odyssey Album Cover Odyssey
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YNGWIE J. MALMSTEEN Facing the Animal Album Cover Facing the Animal
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YNGWIE J. MALMSTEEN Trilogy Album Cover Trilogy
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YNGWIE J. MALMSTEEN Marching Out Album Cover Marching Out
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YNGWIE J. MALMSTEEN Attack!!

Album · 2002 · Neoclassical metal
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lukretion
My reaction to Malmsteen’s post-1990s albums is almost as predictable as the formula he used to write them. Invariably, I end up concluding that the Swedish guitar wizard has done better elsewhere. Attack!! is no exception, although there are more surprises here than what I was expecting going in. This turns out to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Malmsteen seems to have tried to shake things up a bit across the 15 tracks that form this record, which is never a bad thing. On the other hand, the new directions he experimented with in some of the songs seem somewhat misguided and give the album a fragmented, disjointed feel overall.

In the album’s first-half, Yngwie seems busy attempting to revive the sound and spirit of his glorious past. Fast neoclassical guitar scales abound in the construction of riffs, leads and solos, absolutely dominating the soundscape and instantly bringing to mind the true essence of the genre. Differently from the neoclassical power metal strain that became popular in the 1990s, the spirit of songs like “Valley of Kings”, “Ship of Fools”, or the title-track, is truly rooted in the classic origins of the genre, displaying a hard rock swagger that instantly connects to the music of the 1970s (Deep Purple, Rainbow). Enlisting Doogie White on vocals was a clever move to make that connection even more credible, as the singer does a good job at infusing the polished baroque melodies with some healthy rock ‘n’ roll grit. With the guitar and voice firmly put at the heart of each song, the other musicians are vastly relegated to an inconspicuous sparring partner role, which is mad considering the talents Yngwie managed to enlist here (did he really need Derek Sherinian to play simple chords in a handful of tracks?). But this won’t surprise anyone who is familiar with Malmsteen or who has simply glanced at the endless list of musicians that have transited in his band over the years.

If the album’s first-half flows away pleasantly albeit with a general sense of deja-vu, the second-half is where things start going awry. Here Yngwie attempted to shake things up with a handful of tracks that depart from the usual neoclassical formula, but unfortunately took things in directions that are not particularly convincing. If the detour towards classical instrumental music (“Baroque & Roll”, “Air”) fits well with the album’s overall aesthetics, I cannot say the same about the AOR inflections of “Stronghold” and “Touch the Sky”, or about the straightforward but insipid rock ‘n’ roll vibes of “Mad Dog”. The major offender, however, is “Freedom Isn't Free” a fuzzy blues affair that may nod to Jimi Hendrix, but in a way that would have made the poor man roll over in his grave. The fact that Yngwie decided to sing this song himself with a performance which isn’t exactly for the history books, only adds to the woes of what must be the album’s absolutely lowest point.

The combination of inconsistent direction and lack of quality makes the album’s latter part a chore to sit through and, by the time I get to “Freedom Isn't Free”, I usually press the STOP button because I can’t seem to make myself care about the LP anymore (which is a pity since “Majestic Blue” and “Valhalla” are not bad songs, actually). The shaky sound production isn’t exactly encouraging repeat listens, either. Unsurprisingly, the guitars dominate the soundscape, but they are mixed oddly with the rhythm guitar hard-panned to the right and the bass hard-panned to the left in the stereo mix, giving an odd, disjointed feel to the overall sound. The sudden spikes in volume that occur whenever the lead guitar kicks in contribute to the same unpleasant effect. The drums are also mixed in a strange way, very loud and in your face but with a flat, lifeless sound that at times is actually annoying (the snare in “Attack!!”).

Overall, Attack!! leaves me with the general impression of a less accomplished and less inspired version of the sound Yngwie pioneered in the 1980s, with the further aggravating factor of a highly inconsistent and misguided second-half. For some, Attack!! may still be better than the two albums that immediately preceded it, but we are a long long way from anything that might resemble a reasonable return to form.

JASON BECKER Perspective

Album · 1996 · Neoclassical metal
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SilentScream213
I respect this, and I am glad even Metalheads can appreciate it, but I unfortunately don’t really enjoy it. Also… this is not a Metal album. There is some electric guitar, yes, but the Neoclassical label is a misnomer and likely only attached due to Becker’s past.

What we have instead is a New Age Modern Classical album, full of synthed instruments that still sound a bit cheap, but are composed nicely. I do actually like myself some nice New Age, but only when it is emotionally provocative. This is more like… putting notes together for the sake of it. It doesn’t achieve any nice moods or atmospheres. Which was exactly like his guitar playing, and I wasn’t a fan for the same reason. I like the song Blue, but that’s it.

It's at least consistent in quality, there aren’t any bad tracks per say, it’s just a style that doesn't much appeal to me. Props to its development though.

STORMWIND Heaven Can Wait

Album · 1999 · Neoclassical metal
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lukretion
After two LPs recorded with different guest musicians, Swedish guitarist Thomas Wolf decided to gather a proper, stable line-up for his neoclassical metal project Stormwind. Joining Wolf on th band’s third full-length, Heaven Can Wait, are singer Thomas Vikström (ex-Candlemass), keyboard player Kaspar Dahlqvist (Treasure Land) and drummer Patrick Johansson (who will shortly afterwards join Yngwie Malmsteen’s band). All three newcomers are first-class musicians, who definitely elevate Wolf’s project to a whole new level compared to the previous instalments of the band. This allowed Wolf to write songs that are more aggressive and technical than the ones he had written for his previous two records, straying away from the melodic neoclassical hard rock sound of those albums and towards a neoclassical power metal style similar to that pursued by Malmsteen around the same time.

With such strong premises, the expectations for Heaven Can Wait are understandably high. Unfortunately, the album falls short in multiple ways. There are two main shortcomings. First, I have the impression that on this record Wolf had not yet found the right songwriting formula to fully exploit the talents of his new line-up. By penning fast, aggressive pieces he may have tried to play to the strengths of Johansson’s ultra-technical drumming, Vikström’s powerful voice, and Dahlqvist’s fluid soloing abilities (in addition to Wolf’s own technical prowess). But, in doing so, he forgot one essential ingredient of neoclassical metal music: strong melodies. There are very few songs, or parts of songs, that are memorable and catchy here. Most of the album flows away anonymously amidst keyboard/guitar solo duels, tons of baroque-sounding riffs and leads, and a lot of other musical tricks that tick all the right boxes of the neoclassical metal style (alternation between mid-tempo pieces and faster songs; tempo halving/doubling between verse and chorus; relentless double-bass drumming), while failing to leave any lasting impression. I also think that Wolf did not yet know how to write for Vikström’s voice. The singer has an expressive tenor voice, with a good range and lots of character. Many of the parts for his voice here force him to use his upper register in a way that comes across as strained, inevitably sacrificing expressivity and character.

But what really kills this album, in my opinion, is the abysmal production. Stormwind have a history of badly produced albums (hint to all guitar heroes out there: it is OK to leave the control knobs to external producers, once in a while, if you are not up to scratch), but I think Heaven Can Wait beats them all hands down. The sound quality of this album is truly demo-like. The instruments do not blend with each other at all, either because they sound very separated in the mix or because they are piled senselessly on top of one another. The voice is way too upfront in the mix, in a way that highlights all the little imperfections in Vikström’s singing. The drums are also too loud and often drown out a lot of the other instruments. Sometimes this is actually a blessing, because Wolf’s rhythm guitar sound is terrible: muddy and raw, this is definitely not what is needed to do justice to his polished, ornate riffing. This reckless production job makes listening to this album a rather painful experience.

Overall, Heaven Can Wait is a disappointing affair. Stormwind’s previous LP Stargate was impressive, not least thanks to the use of a highly skilled female vocalist as lead singer, which is rather unusual for this style of metal. On Heaven Can Wait, Thomas Wolf put together a whole new line-up consisting of top Swedish musicians and went for a more traditional take on the neoclassical genre. The move did not pay off here: Stormwind lost something in terms of originality while at the same time did not realize huge gains in terms of improved performance or songwriting. On the contrary, the songs Wolf wrote for Heaven Can Wait are not nearly as impressive as the first 5/6 tracks that had appeared on Stargate. Add the fact that the new album sounds terrible, and it is hard to recommend Heaven Can Wait to anyone beyond the strictest circle of Stormwind’s hardcore fans and collectors.

STORMWIND Stargate

Album · 1998 · Neoclassical metal
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lukretion
In the 90s Sweden was a fertile land for neoclassical metal, the metal subgenre based on a combination of hard rock, speed metal and baroque music popularized by Swedish guitar wizard Yngwie Malmsteen, who himself found inspiration in the songwriting of Ritchie Blackmore and his brainchild Rainbow. Guided by guitarist Thomas Wolf, Stormwind follow in the footsteps of the aforementioned six-string heroes. At the time of their second LP Stargate, the band was by and large a Thomas Wolf’s solo project, which is also reflected in their moniker (“Thomas Wolf’s Stormwind”). The guitarist is here aided by a score of different musicians, including Europe’s drummer Ian Haugland, keyboardist Per Hallman and bass player Kristofer Eng (who will later both play in prog rock outfit Brighteye Brison), and singer Angelica Häggström.

The presence of a female vocalist is probably the main element of novelty and interest in this album, since this is an unusual choice for neoclassical metal bands. The music on Stargate is otherwise a competent but fairly ordinary take on Rainbow’s hard rock / melodic metal style, with generous helpings of virtuoso’s showmanship that would have made Malmsteen proud. The guitar takes of course centre stage in the album’s twelve songs, where Wolf showcases a barrage of techniques, from standard hard rock riffs, to power chords, to leads inspired by typical baroque runs, to two-part guitar harmonies, and plenty of technical solos too. The keyboards mostly feature in a supplementary role, playing chords to add to the songs’ texture, and, in a couple of occasions, engaging in “solo duels” with Wolf’s guitars. Rhythmically, things are not particularly adventurous as per the genre’s standard. The drums mostly keep a straight rock tempo that does not vary much in the course of a song. Kristofer Eng’s bass playing is instead bolder, with lots of small solos and grooves that do not fail to capture the ear. The songs alternate between epic and majestic mid-tempos and faster, more aggressive numbers, in classic Rainbow/Malmsteen’s style, with a lean and focused songwriting that is centred on the repetition of verse/chorus plus the obligatory solo intermezzos.

What distinguishes Stargate from most other albums in this style is Angelica Häggström’s performance. Her voice is a cross between Ronnie James Dio and Janis Joplin, if you can imagine how that may sound. She packs a nice vibrato, tons of husky character, and power too. She can rip and roar in the most aggressive songs (“Hit by the Sun”; “Aliens”), but she also shows plenty of shades and emotions in the more mid-tempo pieces (“Masquerade of Love”; “Stargate”). She also has good melodies to sing, especially in songs like “Masquerade of Love”, “Time Won’t Tell” and “Stargate”, which are possibly the best tracks of the record.

Unfortunately, the interesting songs are all placed in the album’s first half, while the second half is considerably weaker and lacks cohesion too, due to a couple of tracks that do not seem to fit with the rest of the material (the bluesy “Cry for Your Love”, the strange AOR/metal hybrid “Beyond Lies”). This detracts somewhat from the listening experience since after the title-track I almost invariably skip most of the remaining songs, with the exception of the good instrumental “Miramar” that closes the album. The other major weakness of Stargate is the subpar production. The sound is muddy and muffled, and there is something seriously wrong with the mastering as there are several instances of audio clipping especially when the bassist starts slapping/soloing. The levels in the mix are also far from optimal, with the guitar sometimes pushed too far back and the drum/bass combo too upfront.

Overall, Stargate is an interesting, if imperfect, record that fans of neoclassical metal should pay attention to. In a sea of music releases that often sound all too samey, Stargate stands out thanks to some inspired songwriting and the presence of an exceptional female vocalist, which is highly unusual for the genre. A weaker second half and a messy production spoil somewhat the album’s enjoyment, but not so badly to completely undermine the record, which is in fact one of the best releases from this Swedish combo.

STORMWIND Rising Symphony

Album · 2003 · Neoclassical metal
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lukretion
Formed in 1995, Stormwind are the brainchild of Swedish guitar maestro Thomas Wolf. The band started playing an unusual brand of female-fronted AOR, before transitioning towards a neoclassical power metal sound that nevertheless retained distinctive AOR / hard rock influences. The band caught the attention of Massacre Records that in 2000 offered them a record deal. Stormwind will go on to release three studio albums and one live record for the German label, which Black Lodge Records is now re-releasing in remastered format with added bonus tracks. Rising Symphony is the last studio album released by Stormwind in 2003, concluding a short but prolific career, with six studio albums in the course of a mere nine years.

The first thing that is impressive about this album is the quality of Stormwind lineup. Thomas Wolf is a guitar powerhouse, following in the footsteps of giants like Ritchie Blackmore and Yngwie Malmsteen, but with a more modern, almost thrashy edge to his playing that makes it refreshing. Thomas Vikström is responsible for the vocal duties. The guy needs little introduction, his stints in Candlemass and Therion have gained him a strong reputation in the metal circles. His performance on Rising Symphony is remarkable, especially for the impressive vocal range he shows throughout the album. The rhythm section is comprised of drummer David Wallin (currently playing with HammerFall) and bassist Andreas Olsson (Royal Hunt, ex-Narnia). Their playing is tight and hyper-fast, yet precise and nuanced, as the genre dictates. The lineup is completed by keyboard player Kaspar Dahlqvist (who played on Angra’s Secret Garden album). His presence is not very prominent on this album, but in previous Stormwind’s records his duels with Thomas Wolf’s guitar were nothing short of legendary.

It’s fair to say that this strong lineup is what holds this album together. Don’t get me wrong, Rising Symphony is by no means a bad album. Its nine tracks alternate between fast speed metal pieces and majestic ballads and mid-tempos, always retaining a strong neoclassical power metal gusto in the spirit of legendary acts like Rainbow, Yngwie Malmsteen’s Rising Force and Stratovarius. There is also a strong hard rock component, that is most evident in songs like “Streets of Prishtine” and Queen’s cover “White Man”. Yet, I cannot shake off the impression that most of what I hear on this album has already been done (and better) elsewhere, including by Stormwind on their previous albums. Without strong performances like those provided by the band, the album would have seriously risked to fall completely flat.

Part of the problem is that Wolf’s songwriting on Rising Symphony follows a rather plain “pedal-to-metal” approach, relying on speed and heaviness rather than atmosphere and melody. Inevitably, the songs feel less nuanced and are melodically weaker than the sophisticated and vaguely proggy material Wolf had written for albums like Resurrection (2000) or Reflections (2001). Even the obligatory semi-acoustic ballad “River of Love” pales in comparison to songs like “Golden Tears” and “Seven Seas” that Stormwind had released on their previous two albums. The record also feels a tad too heterogeneous for its own sake. “Streets of Prishtine” is actually a very good song, and it would have worked perfectly well if it had been released by Whitesnake on one of their 80s albums. But it feels spectacularly out of place squeezed between the neoclassical speed metal assault of “Flyer” and the epic mid-tempo “Excalibur”. The same goes for the bluesy Queen’s cover “White Man”. Truth be told, Stormwind’s hard rock version of this track is actually more engaging that the original by Queen, but it nevertheless remains an odd choice for a power metal album.

The albums has some saving grace in songs like the epic Viking tale of “Strangers from the Sea”, which features a rich choral extravaganza, and “Excalibur”, a majestic yet vaguely sinister mid-tempo that closes the album in style. I actually wish Stormwind had relied more heavily on the use of choirs (sometimes operatic, sometimes more in the vein of Queen), as they had done on their previous album Reflections. On that album, the choirs added an unusual feel to the typical neoclassical power metal sound, elevating Stormwind above other similar bands. Unfortunately, we only get a taste of this on “Strangers from the Sea” and “River of Love”, while the rest of the album moves within much more conventional territories.

The remastered version does not sound all that different from the original 2003 CD. Noticeable differences emerge mostly on the more complex passages, like the busy chorus of “Strangers from the Sea”, where the remaster sounds smoother and more balanced. The new release contains one bonus track, the fairly anonymous “Wings of Tomorrow”, a re-recording of a song that had originally appeared on the band's debut album and was released as a bonus track on the 2003’s Japanese version of Rising Symphony. It replaces the short acoustic instrumental “Venezia” that had appeared on the 2003 European release and that, frankly, was a more pleasant and interesting piece.

All in all, at Rising Symphony may not be Stormwind’s finest hour, but this should not stop you to explore the band’s back catalogue. Albums like Resurrection and especially Reflections are excellent examples of the neoclassical power metal revival of the 1990s and can hold their ground when compared to some of the best works in the genre. Black Lodge Records has re-released both of these albums as well and, if you are a fan of this type of sound, you should definitely check them out!

[Originally written for The Metal Observer]

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