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With a string of three concept albums under their belt, what would Virgin Steele attempt next? A fourth concept album, naturally! However, while the previous three albums had a few interludes here and there, they were more song-based than anything else, particularly Marriage I. Sure, the concept was there, but it was the second priority for the band; the first was clearly writing good songs, which, thankfully, they accomplished with flying colors. However, The House of Ateus: Act I pulls out all the stops, probably their most ambitious, diverse, and complex album to date; they put the concept at the forefront, with spoken interludes, songs from the points of view of various characters, and, in addition to all that, a track listing that's almost as consistent as Marriage II. Yes, folks, don't go away, because Virgin Steele show in 1999 that they are still very much alive and kicking.
To be completely honest, I never followed the complete concept of the Atreus series; it's obviously a Greek-style drama. There are definitely some familiar characters here; Agamemnon and Klytemnestra, who the casual scholar will recognize from Homer's The Odyssey, as well as Kassandra, who is recognizable from The Iliad. Perhaps you're more interested in that sort of thing than I am, but beyond that I never really bothered to follow the story; there's some anger, some battle, some pain; etc. Perhaps one day I'll sit down with the lyric sheet and really study what's going on here, but the songs are more than strong enough to speak for themselves, laden with a variety of emotion. We're also not without connections to the Marriage cycle, both lyrically and musically, with the title of the opening song, "Kingdom of the Fearless" having been referenced in Marriage II's "Emalaith", and the outro of "Child of Desolation" analogous to the intro and outro of "Crown of Glory".
The production here is pretty damn good on all accounts; be it a symphonic interlude, a ballad, or a ball-breaking slab of epic power metal, it's pretty enjoyable. The guitar tone is thick but not overpowering, an improvement over the thinner, sharper tone we heard on Invictus. The piano and synths are as enjoyable as they've always been; realistic and tasteful, although they're not as subtle now as they've been in the past, taking center stage at many points throughout the album. DeFeis's voice is in fine shape; while it's not as razor sharp and piercing as it was on the last album, his aggressive crooning still absolutely grabs the attention of the listener, charismatic as ever, if not more so.
As to the songs themselves, it's pretty much impossible to say much that encompasses all of them, or even place them into categories, short of metal songs, interludes, and ballads. This is easily the most musically diverse album VS have ever released, yet despite that fact it manages to be consistently great. However, there are two major highlights of this album. The first is "Kingdom of the Fearless" which ranks somewhere in my top 5 power metal songs of all time. Yes, it's that good. It is easily, easily the best song VS have ever written, which I wouldn't say lately, considering the amount of competition. However, "Kingdom of the Fearless" just completely grabs you by the balls and doesn't let go for the entirety of its 7 minutes and 39 seconds. We've got the whole shebang here; pompous, bombastic, majestic synths, epic, galloping riffs, out of this world vocal lines, and a huge atmosphere that just SCREAMS "epic" in every way possible. This was my first VS song ever, and after hearing it I knew I was going to love this band.
The other highlight is the second ballad, "Child of Desolation", which is one of my favorite ballads, and certainly the best one VS have ever written. The melancholy, grieving piano riffs create a beautiful atmosphere, coupled by DeFeis' fantastic performance, and an outro that's left me close to tears at times. However, don't let the fact that these are highlights throw you into thinking the rest of the album is half-assed; in fact there's not one worthless song here, although the first ballad, "Blaze of Victory (The Watchman's Song)" is a little dry at times, with lackluster piano riffs and spoken word from DeFeis. And since we're on the subject of ballads, the third and last of them, "Gate of Kings" definitely picks up the slack we hear on "The Watchman's Song", with hopeful, peaceful synths and a triumphant vocal delivery from DeFeis, not to mention a killer chorus. I'm not normally an advocate for metal albums having more than two ballads, but I have to say it works here; perhaps we could have done without "The Watchman's Song", but I don't come away with the feeling that the album had too many ballads, just that one of them could have been better. Hell, I could probably take a whole album of ballads if they were of the quality of "Child of Desolation" and "Gate of Kings".
As to the other metal songs, we've definitely got an all-star line-up here, with "Return of the King" ripping in a classic metal vein that sounds like it could have come straight out of Marriage I, minus perhaps a few flourishes. We also have a few songs that are simple, heavy, and straightforward in their glory; "Through the Ring of Fire", "The Fire God" and "Agony and Shame" sound like something that could have been written in the mid-80's, be it on Noble Savage, Exorcist's LP, Original Sin's LP, or - as was actually the case with "The Fire God" - Piledriver's second LP, which was written by frontmen DeFeis and Pursino. However, this sounds better than any of those, with riffs that will leave a lesser man bewildered and will give even the strongest a good ass-kicking. I'm actually surprised to hear that "Through the Ring of Fire" wasn't written fourteen years earlier - I wouldn't be at all surprised if it were.
Apart from that, we've got the dark, glorious "Flames of the Black Star", which builds tension and then breaks out into epic power metal, with huge multi-tracked choruses DeFeis style, and some straightforward riffs mixed with some dark, ponderous ones. Then we've got "Great Sword of Flame", which sounds like something straight out of Invictus; razor sharp, in-your-face power metal with a few heaps of epic poured on. Finally, there's "And Hecate Smiled", which is sort of half metal, half interlude, with the first minute or so riding a great metal riff, which is unfortunately short-lived as it breaks into synths.
Of course, this album is riddled with interludes, and thankfully, most of them are good, adding to the album rather than detracting from it. Some standouts are "Prelude in A Minor", which is regal with its use of organ synths, "A Song of Prophecy", which has a similar atmosphere to "Child of Desolation" and has some beautifully somber piano riffs, "G Minor Invention", which throws heaps of epic on the table, symphonic style, and "Garden of Lamentation", which is actually more or less a short ballad, with a nice passionate vocal performance from DeFeis.
Overall, this album is greater than the sum of its parts; the interludes and cohesive story provide a sense of overall progression to the album so that it flows like a good book, and even without that, the individual songs are great most of the time. While not quite VS's strongest release, it's an album that surpasses anything most other power metal bands could remotely approach, and it's a very, very worthwhile listen.