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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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]

STORMWIND Reflections

Album · 2001 · Neoclassical metal
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lukretion
When faced with a band releasing four albums in only four years one could understandably fear that the law of diminishing returns may kick in, resulting in lower and lower quality per album. Quite the contrary: with Reflections, Swedish neoclassical power metallers Stormwind have released probably their best album yet, refining to near perfection the tried-and-true formula they had already experimented with on previous releases.

The roots of the band’s sound go back to the days of Rainbow and Yngwie Malmsteen’s Rising Force (1980s period). Baroque but muscular guitar riffs and extended solo duels between guitar and keyboards abound here. The songs alternate between fast-tempo speed metal assaults (“War of Troy”, “Queen of Nine Days”, “Assassin of Honour”) and more majestic mid-tempos (“The Man Behind the Iron Mask”, “Reflections”, “Ramses”). There is also the obligatory semi-acoustic ballad “Golden Tears” that in truth is perhaps one of the best pieces of the album. All songs are neatly constructed around tight conventional structures (verse/bridge/chorus/solo, repeat) and feature strong choruses that are both catchy and epic. In short, Stormwind put on display the full spectrum of musical expression that one would expect to find on the best albums in this genre.

Although originality may not be the strong suit here, Reflections stand out relative to previous Stormwind’s albums for the abundant and slightly unconventional use of choirs throughout its ten compositions. Singer Thomas Vikström showcases the full range of his vocal skills here, alternating between semi-operatic bass/tenor choirs and more traditional hard rock / AOR choral singing. The overall effect is beautiful and greatly enriches the listening experience, injecting a much needed touch of novelty into the album.

The other strength of the album are the strong performances of all musicians involved. Stormwind’s mastermind Thomas Wolf is an excellent guitarist, in the vein of Blackmore and Malmsteen, but is less baroque in his solos, which have instead a more modern, almost thrashy edge. The rest of the lineup is no less impressive. Thomas Vikström (ex-Candlemass, Therion) is a powerhouse who needs little introduction. His vocal range is impressive and he particularly shines when he uses his mid-range, although he does a great job on the high notes too. Drummer Patrick Johansson is equally impressive. His playing is ultrafast, but at the same time extremely nuanced and precise. When I listen to this album I often find myself zooming in on his playing, as it is so rich and multifaceted that it deserves full attention on its own (listen to that drum mayhem on “War of Troy”, for instance). Unfortunately, this is the last album Johansson will record with Stormwind, as shortly after this release he joined Yngwie Malmsteen’s band. I also like Kaspar Dahlqvist’s keyboard arrangements and solos that greatly contribute to the neoclassical sound of the album. Bassist Andreas Olsson is perhaps the least prominent musician here, but not for lack of skills (he will later join highly-technical bands like Narnia and Royal Hunt), but rather because in the mix his instrument is a bit buried underneath the rhythm guitar, which is not unusual for the genre.

The production is otherwise a big improvement relative to the band’s previous album, Resurrection. There is more balance between the instruments, which contributes to the elegant and nuanced feel of the album. The drums sound great, and so do Vikström’s vocals. There is also more separation between keyboards and guitars, and both can be heard well when they play together (this was an issue on the previous record). The only aspect of the production I dislike slightly is the guitar tone, which is a bit too thin and light for my taste, taking away power and depth from the recordings.

Overall, Reflections is a pleasant album of neoclassical power metal that will surely not disappoint the fans of the genre. The tasteful alternation between fast speed metal pieces, majestic mid-tempos and ballads ensures that the listener stays interested throughout the 45 minutes of the record. Most songs are above-average in terms of quality and entertaining value, although perhaps the album lacks one or two “killer” tracks that could truly elevate it to the next level. Nevertheless, songs like “The Man Behind the Iron Mask”, the proggy title-track, “Golden Tears”, and the theatrical “Queen of Nine Days” are extremely well done examples of neoclassical power metal that can compete with the best works in the genre.

STORMWIND Resurrection

Album · 2000 · Neoclassical metal
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lukretion
Stormwind are guitarist Thomas Wolf’s brainchild and Resurrection is their fourth album, released in 2000 via Massacre Records. Started as an AOR / hard rock outfit, the band slowly but steadily transitioned towards the neoclassical power metal genre, gaining accolades among fans of bands like Rainbow, Yngwie Malmsteen’s Rising Force and Stratovarius. Resurrection is firmly rooted in the neoclassical power metal camp, although the band’s early AOR influences do surface from time to time, especially in the hyper-melodic choruses of the songs.

It’s an interesting, if not terribly original, formula that Stormwind use well throughout the nine tracks of the record. The album ticks all the right boxes for appealing to neoclassical power metal fans. The songs alternate between fast up-tempo material and majestic, epic mid-tempos. There is the obligatory power ballad (the excellent “Seven Seas”) and we even have an instrumental guitar suite in three parts (“Synphonia Millennialis”) that moves with ease between acoustic and electric sections. All tracks feature plenty of baroque yet muscular guitar riffs as well as exciting duels between guitars and keyboards. The level of technical proficiency is high. Thomas Wolf is a skilled guitarist and his solos are always interesting and exciting. Keyboard player Kaspar Dahlqvist is a more than adequate sparring partner for Wolf’s solos, and the duels between guitars and keyboards are always one of the most interesting parts of every song. Thomas Vikström’s (ex-Candlemass, Therion) vocals rip and soar, showcasing all his talent. Meanwhile, Patrick Johansson provides quickfire drumming, fast as lightning but incredibly precise and nuanced, injecting the right oomph to the music.

The album flows away pleasantly, albeit slightly anonymously due to the lack of songs that can be real showstoppers. “Souldance” and “Samuraj” are those that grabbed my attention the most. The combination of ultra-melodic choruses and cool, classically-inspired riffs is a trick that never ceases to amuse and Stormwind pull it off really well on these two tracks. The ballad “Seven Seas” is another high point of the album. It starts slow with piano and voice, before gaining momentum and growing into a full-band, emotional finale. The other songs are also pleasant, but fail to leave a lasting mark on my musical psyche.

There is one aspect of the album, however, that I find really unfortunate, and it is the terribly poor production. The tones and levels of the instruments are a mess on this record. Guitars and keyboards constantly steal space from one another and when they play together it is really hard to figure out what’s being played by either instrument. The vocals are far too back in the mix and the drums and bass are too upfront. The sound is particularly poor when the songs gain momentum and all instruments play to the max, as one can hardly distinguish what is going on. It’s a pity, because I think I would have liked the album much better if it had had a decent production.

Overall, this one is a bit of a hit and miss for me. It leaves me with the bittersweet sense of unrealized potential. Stormwind are incredibly skilled musicians and have good songwriting chops, but on this record they somehow fail to convey these skills into truly outstanding and memorable songs. Add to this a general lack of originality and a terrible production, and the result is an OK album that unfortunately is unlikely to see the inside of my CD player again any time soon.

YNGWIE J. MALMSTEEN Eclipse

Album · 1990 · Neoclassical metal
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SilentScream213
Yngwie begins the new decade with his most mainstream release yet. It’s a pretty smooth transition from Odyssey – the AOR and simplicity turned up a bit. It starts off pretty dull, and a good portion of the tracks are unmemorable anthems. The lyrics are quite poor, though they’ve never been great.

It’s not all bad, though – Eclipse is the first album where Yngwie uses his guitar to start layering simple yet effective melodies in almost New Age style. They play off keys and vocal harmonies, and there are some moments where all the sound comes together in really nice ways. Vocalist Göran Edman actually steals most of the songs, as for once Yngwie doesn’t do a whole lot of shredding and soloing. I won’t lie, these songs are about as uninspired and passionless as radio pop, but Göran certainly doesn’t lack ability, and he’s got a few fantastic hooks here. The album also ends with a string of really strong material, meaning it leaves a poor first impression, but a much stronger lasting one. I liked it more with each listen.

Overall – some of his worst, but also some of my favorite material from Yngwie.

JASON BECKER Perpetual Burn

Album · 1988 · Neoclassical metal
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SilentScream213
Jason Becker, to me, is actually the least appealing of the many Neoclassical guitar heroes of the 80’s. He is arguably the most talented guitar player, but when it comes to songwriting, or playing anything memorable, or evocative, he doesn’t do it for me. There’s also the backing band – or lack thereof. Unlike some shredders like David Chastain who love giving their highly capable backing band moments to shine, this is just Becker, basically soloing for 40 minutes over very simple and repetitive backing music. His skill is incredible yes, but it’s basically a gimmick album at this point. The only appeal is that this guy plays so amazingly fast it might distract you from the fact that nothing else is going on.

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