Part 1: Introduction/Economy

Yngwie Malmsteen, acclaimed Swedish heavy metal shredder, is credited with the creation (or at least elevation) of neoclassical metal.  Yngwie (pronounced EENG-vay) sports a Fender Stratocaster, modeled to his own specifications, most notably a scalloped fretboard for his playing style, and the retention of three single-coil pickups instead of humbuckers, which make his bass and mid-end tone suffer but allow him to soar in the high register.  He most commonly tunes this guitar to e-flat and uses very light strings, allowing maximum ability to shred.

A devotee of baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach, Yngwie’s music primarily focuses on the harmonic minor scale and its modes, and distances itself from the roots of rock and metal—blues-based music a la Hendrix.  Mr. Malmsteen’s devotion to the sound world of neoclassical shred metal is riveting at first, but after listening to many of his tracks one understands that he uses a few select riffs and variations thereof, leaving his work quite repetitive.

This repetitive, cyclical nature is fascinating because it appeals to so many of us “metal-heads”.  What is it that makes us crave his music, when it just most commonly rehashes itself in a flourish of glamour and speed?

Here, as one example, I will investigate his song “Crucify”, off of his 2000 album “War to End All Wars”.

The lyrics are typical for his subgenre and personal style:

You really think
You’re so clever
But you are quite insane
In Hell your soul
Will burn forever
Bringing eternal pain
You tried to
Crucify me
I know you
Will never see

Crucify me … (etc.)
I’ll put and end
to your blood letting
I’ll seize your evil reign
You’ll have no more
Money netting
The loser must be slain

You tried to
Crucify me
I know you
Will never see

Crucify me … (etc.)

In essence, it harnesses a dark Christian perspective and illuminates a divide from good and evil, pure and depraved, and the self versus the demon.  The lyrics are minimal, but are striking and intriguing.  I believe that this is in part because from the beginning one senses a harsh, angry accusation of being evil, insane, and damned.  This affront is then one-upped by saying that “you” tried to crucify “me”.  This song thus places the audience in the shoes of those who crucified Jesus Christ, which would cause alarm to most of us listeners.

Yet, before we even get to the lyrics, we get “the lick”.  I put this in quotations marks because Yngwie’s hits (eg. Seventh Sign, Far Beyond the Sun, Arpeggios From Hell, Blitzkrieg, etc.), tend to have an opening lick that forms the centerpiece of the song, repeated ad nauseam but being such a well-constructed pattern that one has to listen to the song many times repeatedly to feel this nausea at each song’s hook.

Here the lick utilizes Yngwie’s 6th string tuned to d-flat, with the other strings tuned to e-flat.  This forms a d-flat pedal, keeping the opening lick firmly in d-flat harmonic minor.  The appeal of this lick comes from many facets.  The lowered sixth string’s tone is rich and dark; brooding, doom-like–evil.  The pedal d-flat that is picked in sixteenth notes has a downward motion that is syncopated, breaking us out of the 4/4 meter at the beginning and throwing our minds out of the meter very briefly—not enough for us to notice consciously, but enough so that we don’t get tired of banging our heads and moshing in repetitive, drone-like 4 beats to a bar.

The lick at first descends, which gives me fear as to how far into hell it will plummet, making the d-flat open string even more powerful.  Yngwie then plays with register by going back up the string and utilizing the d-flat phrygian dominant scale (the fifth mode of the g-flat harmonic minor scale).  With this entrance, Yngwie has made his entrance and established his harmonic realm.  The doors have been kicked open and Satan, with ascending and descending harmonic minor and phrygian dominant scales, Bach-inspired d-flat pedal tones, and blistering speed, has arrived.

In part 2 (coming soon): the formal economy of means in “Crucify”