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Virgin Steele's stint of glory from "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" up until "Visions of Eden" is a landmark in epic metal. For twelve years, David Defeis led his symphony of steel beyond the halls of Valhalla and through Olympus' clouds with his soaring fleet of iron might, and I show no shame in including Virgin Steele next to Iron Maiden or Judas Priest as one of metal's finest warriors; their material really is that exquisite. Now I was a little surprised by the immediate decline in content throughout "The Black Light Bacchanalia" following "Visions of Eden." Sure, it's another tale of grandiosity which wiggles next to most of the band's works, but the mask, once removed, reveals something tired and faceless. Virgin Steele did not abandon the charging anthems and high-flying characteristics of their prime; however, the meat and potatoes of the group's fire was stretched way too thin, leading "The Black Light Bacchanalia" down a path where sagas fade to one-dimensional fables and valor molests its own honor.
The focus of the album seems to be how many useless and overblown additives Defeis and crew can pile into their music, if I may be frank. Extravagant tunes with multiple layers including orchestral work and keyboards alongside the elongated duration of Virgin Steele's compositions have appeared beforehand in previous offerings of this group, but here they transfer from relevant to banal without really changing anything remarkably drastic. Beyond the gigantic film of extra crap (and there's plenty of it), there isn't anything noteworthy or captivating within this carnival of mediocrity. Occasionally a cool riff or pattern pops up, but these moments are usually drilled into oblivion once all the unneeded sections and useless fireworks show up and totally throw off whatever the band was originally conveying. They constantly jerk around from here to Asgard for the sole purpose of jerking around from here to Asgard, just a directionless show of Virgin Steele on sleep debt; the idea of recreating an epic anthem or something dramatic completely ruins most of the album, as it was clearly the point to bring one of Defeis' cinematic imaginations (which border on laughable at times) to life. Probably not the outcome he was hoping for.
Speaking of Defeis, what the hell happened to this guy's voice? Remember the rough, gritty tone and sky-high wailing of this banshee that immortalized his voice in the eternal halls of metal? Well, here he greatly restrains his ability as a vocalist, settling for vapid chimes and falsettos so falsely theatrical and roaring that they almost seem like a joke. Still, he hits notes that impress, yet his standard brilliance this is not. The only survivors are "By the Hammer of Zeus," the pounding "The Bread of Wickedness," and I have a little heart for "Eternal Regret," yet like most of the album, it could use a temporal shaving of about four or five minutes. Sure there are a few good tracks, but it's like these guys were trying to win a formula-1 race on tricycles, thinking the flames painted on their bikes would achieve hyperspeed and break the sound barrier. I could totally picture David Defeis doing that, by the way.
In its attempt to become a heroic tale of divinity and beauty, "The Black Light Bacchanalia" boasts the armor of Virgin Steele without having understood the knowledge of why or how Defeis and his precious child are heavy metal legends. Excessive orchestration and a multitude of tracks running beyond seven minutes equates to precisely nothing if the core fundamentals of passion and drama and power decide to skip out on the festival, and sadly, that's what happens here. In contradiction to the consistency of Virgin Steele, "The Black Light Bacchanalia" fails miserably at its desired objective, and I hereby state this is the band's worst full-length release since “Life Among the Ruins,“ easily. Boring, bland, and balderdash is this bacchanalia.
This review was written for: www.Thrashpit.com
Something has to be said for the hard-nosed existences of older rock/metal acts who just don’t know when to quit. I’m not saying that to be a dick, or anything, like certain acts should just hang it up rather than tarnish their past reputation with albums that neither tackle those older ideals nor shed some evolutionary light (…OK, there are SPECIFIC acts out there that should really consider calling it a day. Won’t say who.). I’m actually praising some of these bands for not giving a fuck whether or not their particular style has outlived its usefulness and continue to record and tour. Dedication to their craft…something to admire. And it seems that one such act is this here Virgin Steele band, 30 years young and still goin’ at it.
And let’s see what they’ve been up to post-millennium…
I’ll admit it now; what drove me to this album, at first, were David DeFeis’ strange jaguar screams first head on the first track, and the fact that they kept coming during that first riff was just fantastic and had me hooked for the rest of the album. Things start out with that fist-pumpin’ heavy/power metal sound that is just cuh-LASSIC to the bone, sounding simultaneously catchy and aged and able to push everything with a good forward momentum that doesn’t lag too much on riffs and ideas that are weaker than they let on. Over time, though, things end up moving into a new direction that kinda betrays the album’s decidedly old-timey feel, entering the realm of rather fancy-sounding symphonic metal that doesn’t sound too far removed from a high-profile Broadway stage show, albeit with a group of long hairs at the helm. On that same musical end of things, this is some really rippin’ metal that has more than a lion’s share of melodic tandems and many moments to enjoy, where the distorted guitars and drum-machiney percussion meet lush orchestration, sharp piano interludes and strange, operatic/cat screeching singing that is both epically powerful (with the low, brooding approach) and annoyingly distracting (with the high, squeaky falsettos that just pop outta nowhere), taking song lengths into a dimension all their own due to the overwrought arrangements. The production doesn’t really do the material that much justice in that, at times, the instrumentation is scrunched under the weight of the monstrous vocal exercises, making it that much harder to take in and enjoy as much as I’m sure David would have wanted. Nevertheless, the differentiation present is almost enough to make up for the strangeness “The Black Light Bacchanalia” possesses, as songs like “By the Hammer of Zeus (and the Wrecking Ball of Thor)”, “In a Dream of Fire” and the closer, “Eternal Regret” can attest to.
At the end of the day,Virgin Steele’s latest is a mixed bag of musical fanciness and weird vocal aesthetics that stands on its own two feet, but doesn’t come off as completely gelled. It’s ambitious, sure, but the remaining loose ends and sharp corners can come off as too distracting to enjoy completely. Recommended, but with caution.
By the hammer of Zeus indeed, here we are closing out my rewind on one of metal’s finest products. It might come as a surprise to some of the readers to hear this was my personal album of the year for 2010 – particularly given the wealth of incredible releases to come out then. Whilst I wouldn’t say it was the strongest of the crop, I established an emotional bond with this album, which I think few ever will or want to.
I’ll level with you. The Black Light Bacchanalia isn’t an easy album to appreciate, and on the surface there are plenty of elements which strive to keep it down. Some fans of the band seem to think Virgin Steele began and ended with the superlative “classic five” run, and those fans have expressed much distaste for this release, which has certainly added to Black Light’s poor reputation. If you want to strike up any sort of appreciation with the album, it’s going to be hard going, and I think most importantly, will require a lot of time through repeated listening.
So what’s wrong with it? Most identifiably I’d say it’s the thin production, which manages to trump the preceding Visions Of Eden. The guitar presence in particular struggles to find a prominent place in the mix, as David DeFeis vocals strive to dominate throughout. Speaking of which, if you’ve any prior knowledge of the album, or read other reviews, you’ll see the mob mentality can’t get away with David’s vocals here. Whilst it isn’t too far away from what he was doing on the last album, there’s a definite increase in his whispered vocals, which some have pegged down to diminishing talent. I personally like to think it’s more out of personal choice, DeFeis oft aims to please himself foremost, and in a sense it’s a brave move, as no one sings like this.
Outside of these obviously noticeable factors, the only other element to The Black Light Bacchanalia that I can imagine would be off-putting is the sheer scope of the songs, and the admittedly lengthy run of the album. Of course, this follows in the footsteps of their preceding release, and as such you’ll find a more prominent piano and orchestral presence as opposed to the almighty guitar riff. I do feel that this is a more metallic effort than their prior opus, but the differences in terms of sound alone are marginal.
I guess you’re keen to know what I feel is so good here? Well it’s simple (no we’re not killing the Batman today)- it’s all in the songwriting. To be fair, songwriting is the most important aspect of any album, and Virgin Steele has long since mastered the art of crafting deep, dense numbers which have their hooks coveted like treasure, awaiting any adventurer savvy enough to delve the depths. Whilst I’ve mentioned that on the surface there is a fair bit identifiably wrong with the album, I feel it’s more so to scare off the bubblegum, thrill-a-minute guys who wouldn’t know the peaks and valleys of excellent songwriting if it were to crash through their window. The Black Light Bacchanalia awards the inquisitive listener, and for those of you out there, I beg you come in.
Just about every song here is worthy of note, and whilst thematically there is a fair bit going on, the endgame closes the story told in Visions Of Eden. To those who look to lyrics first, then I’ll say that, as always with Virgin Steele, they’re very well done, if a little indulgent. Like I say, thematically they close out the last album, but there’s also a focus on old Pagan deities, and the general switch from the old to the new religion(s). Some of the songs aren’t all that obvious in their theme and lyrics so really you can take what you want from the experience – I know I have. Even “Eternal Regret”, which is essentially God’s lamentation, can be taken how you like, either way the song absolutely ruins me. Without a doubt one of the more poignant Virgin Steele numbers.
And that’s it really. The album hits me in ways that few acts outside of Virgin Steele can. DeFeis’ oftentimes odd vocal approach serves more as a benefit in my eyes, and awards the music a further degree of affecting texture. Of course, none of this would be possible without the foundation of dramatic piano work, focused guitar playing, and driving rhythms. Whilst I’d have liked more Edward Pursino, he’s still there and puts forth some cool stuff along with his cohort Josh Block; whose presence is the most prominent it has ever been in the band – something I sincerely hope isn’t a sign of things to come. Seriously, keep Pursino upfront, and leave Block handling bass and rhythm.
The Black Light Bacchanalia is a hard album to sell, what with its polarizing effect on people and poor reputation amongst non-die hard (read: fanboy/girl) fans. I surely wouldn’t suggest starting with this one, as it’s best to understand how the band works prior to indulging. What I will say is to give this one a fair chance: don’t go in expecting pugilistic and driving metal, as whilst there are plenty of heavy metal elements throughout, for the most part the band transcends genres with this one. An odd release to say the least, the appeal is without a doubt stilted, and you really have to put the work in for the enjoyment. Those who do, however, will be very well-rewarded with some awe-inspiring songwriting.
I’ll defend this one to the grave.
Edit: This is new review, written for http://blackwindmetal.com to finish my artist rewind. For a more fanboyish review of the album from when it came out visit the Metal Crypt.
Well, this was bound to happen sometime or other. I love Virgin Steele, and at their best they really are one of the classiest and best metal acts out there, but even the gods aren’t infallible. Apparently after almost 10 years gone from the scene they seem to have lost their marbles, or at the very least have bitten off more than they could chew. Visions of Eden was a detour, and one that could be excused – they’d still come back to their regular sound later, right? Experimentation is fine, but there are ways to take it too far…which this album does rather garishly. The train has run itself off the tracks, people.
This is called The Black Light Bacchanalia, and we have the first flaw of this album right there. Virgin Steele has simply gotten too wrapped up in DeFeis’ own mythos and pretentiousness. The 90s stuff was always elaborate, sure, but it was always rooted to Earth with catchy riffs, choruses and an adherence to some semblance of the heavy metal style. This stuff…is just too much. I mean it’s not like they’ve lost the ability to write songs, but it’s more like they’re more concerned now with trying to write some kind of faux-opera story with multiple characters and parts and storylines, except they never really go all the way with that either, not like they did on the Atreus albums. Instead they just keep trudging through overly long and overly progressive songs in a manner that suggests they think they are being clever – or rather, DeFeis does, as he is the only one who really wrote any songs on this.
It’s frustrating because there are some really good parts to this album that remind me of the kind of music this band is capable of at their best “By the Hammer of Zeus” rocks, and it’s followed with slices of majestic metal like “Pagan Heart” and the melodic, gloomy “In a Dream of Fire,” but sadly these opening songs are the only good ones on here. After that the album just kind of loses itself up DeFeis’ polished ass and meanders around for a good 55 minutes, producing only moments of actual tension and grandiosity amongst many, many more of pointless and directionless stumbling. Listen to the storming, riff-crammed openings of “The Orpheus Taboo” or the title track and you will be incredibly disappointed as they sink into asininely restrained prog jerking that just doesn’t end up interesting at all.
Every song is like that really; lots of masturbatory pianos and ornate guitar work with very little substance or direction. “To Crown Them With Halos” is trying, and it’s definitely really elaborate and structured, but I can’t help but think it just doesn’t reach its point fast enough, if it even has one. “Necropolis” is long and overly mellow and like a less good version of “Emalaith” from the second Marriage album. Except, you know, on THAT album they didn’t have like 5 other songs trying to be “Emalaith,” too, so it was better, more surprising and more poignant. This is just overkill. By the time the slothful “Eternal Regret” rolls around this album is just completely tiresome, with very little to keep the listener hooked.
DeFeis’ vocals on here are overly adorned with pointless crooning and ridiculous castrati wailing contrasting his gurgling-broken-glass ‘harsh’ voice in a way that seems to be dodging the implication that maybe, just maybe, his regular voice isn’t cutting it anymore. The whole album is like a plastic Christmas tree. It’s flashy and it looks nice on paper but why bother with it when you could get the real, organic thing? That is, go listen to The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Invictus or The House of Atreus instead. The Black Light Bacchanalia is simply too much music with too little real, actual meaning behind it – and no, I’m not counting the arbitrary, pompous lyrical storyline behind this whole thing…
I really don’t mean to be so venomous towards this, but really, Virgin Steele are one of my favorite bands and this album is incredibly annoying, especially when you get a section or two that really makes you think ‘Ooh, maybe I was wrong! Maybe this IS getting better!’ Newsflash: It’s not.
Originally written for http://www.metalcrypt.com