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1995's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell Part II made its stand proudly and triumphantly, proudly carrying the torch of power metal as one of its greatest releases to date. After waiting three years for its successor, one could only wonder what was to come. Would it live up to its predecessor? Would it fall back into the glam metal roots last seen in 1993's Life Among the Ruins? Or would it fall into the vast middle ground between utter mediocrity and near perfection?
Invictus proved to reside firmly somewhere in that middle ground - good, perhaps even great, although still overshadowed by the glorious Marriage II. While the songwriting is significantly less consistent, some things are improved here. Everything is sharper and crisper here - particularly the razor-sharp guitar tone and DeFeis's savage, precise shrieks. While previous albums have featured a more varied performance from DeFeis, with emotions ranging from desperate to caring to aggressive, here we see him focus almost exclusively on aggression; this is a mixed blessing. The album doesn't provide as rich an emotional contrast as the Marriage albums did, but this is by far DeFeis's best display of pure aggression and testosterone. If you're a fan of songs like "Twilight of the Gods" and "Victory Is Mine", you're in for a treat here. This is Virgin Steele at its toughest, crunchiest, and most straightforward.
As far as songwriting is concerned, this is probably the simplest of VS's post-80's albums. Out are complex, multi-part opuses like "Emalaith" and in are concise, savage anthems in the vein of early Manowar. This, however, is much more ambitious than anything out of Manowar's playbook, and Eric Adams only wishes he could ever match DeFeis's performance here.
The riffs here are simple and repetitive, but extremely effective and catchy as hell. If the main riff of "Sword of the Gods" or "Defiance" doesn't have you headbanging like a maniac, then I'm not sure what will. There are no ballads here, although "Veni, Vidi, Vici" does have some softer passages and has some subtle aesthetic differences from the rest of the album. While it's still triumphant and glorious, it has a more passive feeling than the rest of the album; rather than going out into battle to slay one's enemies, it has the feeling of being blessed by the gods after a long life of pride and glory. While I don't believe in any deities, I have to say, even without the lyrics, the song has a distinctively divine feeling to it, as though ascending to the peak of Mount Olympus to spend eternity there with Zeus and co. That being said, I find this song to be pretty inaccessible, especially for Virgin Steele, and I'm rarely in the mood to listen to it in its entirety; however, when I am in the mood for it, it's one of VS's greatest anthems. The next time you have 11 minutes to sit and do nothing but focus on the song, sit down and give it a listen - you won't be disappointed.
There are other, even subtler, differences in aesthetics throughout the album; "Invictus", "Through Blood and Fire", "Defiance", and "Dominion Day" focus more on bombast, while "Mind, Body, Spirit", "A Whisper of Death" and "Dust From the Burning" focus more on grit, falling in line more with traditional heavy metal, "A Shadow of Fear" has a more desperate, malicious feeling, and "Sword of the Gods" has a feeling of mystery and utmost importance. Musically, "Sword of the Gods" also has some singularity; the songwriting here is more ambitious than that of the other songs; it is less immediate and more immersive, and plays more like a sprawling epic in the vein of Manilla Road's "The Ninth Wave" than, for example, "Invictus". It's also one of the best songs here, with riffs that will tear you apart if you let them, solos that will make you forget what you're doing, and a chorus that's hard to keep from humming in your spare time.
Of the more bombastic songs, "Invictus" is far and away the best, with fantastic lyrics courtesy of William Ernest Henley's poem of the same title, punishingly fierce verses, and a chorus that surpasses everything else on the album in terms of pure catchiness and bombast. "Through Blood and Fire" is great, too, if not quite as catchy; "Defiance" is good rather than great, with excellent verses but a lackluster chorus, and "Dominion Day" ultimately falls into the category of "mediocre".
Of the remaining songs, "Mind, Body, Spirit" is an excellent heavy/power anthem, as punishing as the title track with another infectious chorus and a welcome reprieve in the form of an acoustic section, while "A Whisper of Death" and "Dust From the Burning" are merely good; the former has sort of an urban feeling we've heard before on "Blood and Gasoline" and "Prometheus the Fallen One". "A Shadow of Fear" is fairly unique for VS in its atmosphere, living up to its name with increasing tension in the verses building up to a strange, uneasy chorus. Although the riffs could be better, the song structure as a whole is excellent, and this is definitely one of the better numbers here.
While more uneven than either its predecessor or its successor, Invictus is still an extremely solid album from these power metal giants. If you get the chance to listen to it, I highly recommend it if you're a fan of heavy metal, power metal, Virgin Steele, or Manowar. It will be worth your while for sure.