Picture in your mind the stereotypical neoclassical shredder – and not just the tight leather pants, flowing, feathered locks of hair and frilly, open-buttoned shirts that turned Ynwgie Malmsteen into an international sex symbol.
Instead, picture the playing: lots of arpeggios, blazing speed and a distorted tone that would make Bach weep. On her new album, guitar goddess the Commander in Chief (née Berit Hagen) flips that on its ear. Though she’s still using an Ibanez seven-string, The Virtuoso is a purely clean-toned affair: emphasis on the classical, rather than the neo.
The fact that the album exists at all – let alone that Hagen’s playing on it is so exquisite – is a near miracle. In 2016, she was struck by a parasitic infection that eventually led to a catastrophic shoulder injury, one that took her years to recover from.
“In late 2018, I was still not strong enough to wear my guitar strap to hold and wear my acoustic guitar,” she says. “So it has been a very long process, first of resting and then gradually, literally building muscles and then being able to play again. It was frightening – it felt like someone was stabbing me in the shoulder 24/7. So it’s not something I would recommend.”
Compared to a major health scare, the Commander in Chief’s other issue with making the album might seem minor, but it did make for a much heavier workload: she might be fleet of finger, but she doesn’t read sheet music. She had to painstakingly learn each piece by ear, some of which took her months to master.
“One thing is breaking it down and figuring it out. And, of course, there’s all the repetition and all the hours you have to do every single day – and getting into a really good routine. There’s also a lot of exercising in order for your body to be able to do it.”
The result of all that work includes delicate takes on well-known classics such as Por Una Cabeza (aka the song Arnold Schwarzenegger waltzes to in True Lies) and the more obscure (her takes on Introduction & Rondo Capriccioso and Zigenerweisen Op. 20 are the first known guitar recordings of the pieces), many of which also feature classical guitarist Craig Ogden, which makes for a unique and ear-catching pairing.
How fans will react to the album remains to be seen, but for a woman who dresses up in formal military attire and overlays her riffage with her classically trained vocals, going against metal (or classical) orthodoxy isn’t something to fear.
“The metal was polarizing. People loved it or hated it,” Hagen says. “The classical music is the same; I get the same reaction. But when you get a strong reaction, I think that’s a good thing.”
- The Commander in Chief's new album, The Virtuoso, is out now via Commander Music.