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The Grim Reaper visage seems perfectly suited to both the guitar virtuoso's music and his lyrics -- fist-pumping hard-rock riffs circling around squealing solos and accompanied by tales of demonic armies on the march chock-a-block with Gothic imagery and a healthy dose of teen angst. This suburban citadel also fits the bill of what a heavy-metal star's home should look like; a large stone lion on the front lawn is but one of many oversize statues that dot the three-and-a-half-acre spread.
Yet Yngwie [pronounced Ing-vay] Malmsteen, Lord of the Underworld, is not what he seems. True, a martial theme runs throughout his house, from the samurai swords and vintage rifles mounted on the walls to the custom-fitted suit of armor that stands in the foyer. But the only sounds of fury on this afternoon come from an upstairs bedroom, where Yngwie's son, two-and-a-half-year-old Antonio, is crashing away on his miniature drum kit.
Malmsteen owns a large collection of rare guitars, which would seem to be a natural conversation starter when strangers pay a visit. Instead he chooses to lead Kulchur on a tour of the grounds, his immaculately kept tennis court ("I have a teacher at the country club"), and a row of newly planted hedges. Almost apologetically he explains, "These hedges haven't really started coming in yet." Then, casting an admiring gaze across the street to his neighbor's healthy chest-high shrubbery, he adds, "They grow better in the summer."
At ease on his front lawn, bathed in bright sunshine and framed by a bucolic street, Malmsteen makes for a bizarre sight. This is a man, after all, whose latest album, War to End All Wars, opens with the screamed advice: "Run for your lives!" It's a bit hard to envision this foreboding black-clad figure as a contented homeowner worrying about landscaping projects and his tennis backhand. Evidently we're a long, long way from the debauched Los Angeles rock world of the Eighties that first made Yngwie Malmsteen a star.
Malmsteen settles into a chair inside his impressively arrayed home recording studio. With a bust of Bach and another suit of armor flanking the mixing board, this darkened soundproof sanctum seems a more appropriate venue to discuss his rock and roll life and how it has led him to Miami Shores, of all places.
"I started playing guitar when I was five years old," he recalls, laying out a life story with a narrative arc tailor-made for a VH1 Behind the Music special. "In Sweden it was impossible to get somewhere. I had a following, I had a buzz -- record companies didn't want to know. Neoclassical heavy metal? Nobody even knew what that was." He adds proudly: "I invented that style of music."
In 1983 Malmsteen's homemade demo sufficiently impressed the head of a prominent L.A. indie metal label. He offered the eighteen-year-old Swede an airline ticket and the promise of a recording contract. There was just one hitch: Malmsteen was then just beginning his nation's mandatory military service.
"When I was eighteen years old, eighteen months [in uniform] seemed like a lifetime," he remembers. "If I didn't get to play guitar all day, every day, I would've gone insane." And of course fame was beckoning. "I was definitely aiming at getting discharged -- honorably or dishonorably, I didn't care." Malmsteen allegedly walked into his commanding officer's office with a pistol pointed at his own head. Asked to elaborate, he says only that the incident involved "screaming and a loaded weapon."
Shortly thereafter Malmsteen moved to Los Angeles, where he became a veritable overnight sensation in the then-exploding big-haired rock milieu. His first solo album (released in 1984) received a Grammy nomination as gushing metal fans touted him as the heir to Eddie Van Halen's fast-fingered, ear-piercing throne.
Malmsteen's response, as he graced the covers of guitar-hero bibles such as Kerrang! and Guitar World, was to dismiss the competition. "I'm the master. I wrote the book," he said at the time. Moreover, he advised, if you really want to hear some serious string-shredding, forget about Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page and his blues-based kin. Classical was where it was at -- violin wizard Niccolò Paganini rules. "Sometimes I'm playing way over people's heads," Malmsteen told the Los Angeles Times in 1988.
Although he never achieved the crossover success of a Motley Crüe or a Guns N' Roses, Malmsteen developed an international following that kept him in the high life, complete with expensive sports cars and groupies.