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Virgin Steele was originally a glam metal act, as seen in their eponymous debut in 1982, and evolved into more of a traditional metal act, with some glam elements. They had some songs that ventured into power metal territory, particularly on Age of Consent, but it wasn't until The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: Part I in 1994 that they would cement themselves in time as one of the greatest and most consistent epic power metallers of all time, with their string of five excellent albums in a row from 1994-2000. This is the last of those albums, and although it might not stand up to the likes of the Marriage album, it's still quite solid in its own right.
There's very little to bash here, overall; the production is crisp and clear, the riffs and vocals harmonize very naturally; the transitions are seamless, and the album flows very well from beginning to end. The piano is tasteful, elegant, and heart-filled; and David DeFeis is in top form, showing off his skill in range and execution that make him one of the best vocalists in heavy metal. While it's not quite as consistent as previous releases, at its best it is perfectly epic, bombastic, and proud.
DeFeis' voice is more sharp and controlled on this album than on the Marriage albums; the powerful roar he unleashed on those albums is replaced by thrashy, well-controlled shrieks, if anything even more powerful than the roar; it feels as if he's honing the power of his voice down to a fine blade, rather than a broad hammer. Along with the crunchy, crisp riffs, it gives the album a very sharp atmosphere, tight and aggressive without venturing into thrash territory.
The riffs feel as if they were written to harmonize with the vocal lines; DeFeis is clearly the center show here, but the riffs are excellent all on their own, completing the glorious, bombastic, sometimes somber power metal. In fact, the riffs often threaten to take the spotlight by their sheer catchiness, despite DeFeis obviously being the main attraction.
The album gets going with the speedy anthem "Wings of Vengeance", both savage and bombastic in its simplicity; that's the thing about Virgin Steele. They take simple riffs and melodies and milk them for all their worth; they layer the melodies to make them work for them. All the riffs in "Wings of Vengeance" are incredibly simple, and yet they create a huge atmosphere along with DeFeis' vocals; I guess it says something about DeFeis that he's a competent enough vocalist to fill into the atmosphere what the riffs lack.
"Fire of Ecstasy" is similar in style, but markedly more aggressive and less bombastic than "Wings of Vengeance". The quick riffs in the verses drive the song forward like troops into battle, culminating in the softer, more epic chorus that gives the song a more personal feel; like someone going after another person in vengeance, then shifting mood when another join's the assailant's company. This is represented by the lyrics, especially in the segment where DeFeis coos, "You and I will avenge our fathers!"
"The Voice as Weapon" combines the aggression and bombast of the previous two songs; the relentless, crushing riffs are complemented by DeFeis' sunny, sweet vocal lines. It works well, although not quite as well as the previous two songs; however, the riffs are mostly to blame - they're good, but not quite up to par for VS. Still, the song is solid and far from lacking.
"Moira" is a short, reflective half-ballad that starts out somber but grows more hopeful as the song continues, changing to a confident major chord, and then back again. It's decent, but doesn't really stand well on its own, there to support the progression of the concept, which it does adequately, but is lacking musically.
"Nemesis" is similarly shaky; more of an interlude than a ballad, really, as its purely an instrumental track, although at over three minutes it's one of the longer interludes here. The melodies are interesting, retaining a strong classical feel to them, until at one point in the song it abruptly becomes suspenseful and ominous, as the guitar joins in and it even begins to grow aggressive. Once again, helpful for the overall album, perhaps even musically, but weak on its own.
"The Wine of Violence" is a deliciously dark number, still with elements of bombast, particularly the opening and the chorus. This is quite possibly the catchiest and most anthemic chorus here, and is definitely the highlight of the song. I often find it hard to keep from singing along with DeFeis. "Wine of violence, takes your controooool!!!" Still, the verses have a very barbaric feel to them, providing a good contrast with the chorus.
"A Token of My Hatred" is very much glorious and bombastic, probably the most anthemic number here; it's huge, majestic, and grippingly powerful in its execution. The opening organ sets the mood, but then the song proper begins, and it's clearly a great one. For lack of a better word, "epic" definitely comes to mind here, hearkening thoughts of mighty Mount Olympus or an emperor's palace; someone important is around. Unfortunately, the song is a bit lopsided; for about the first half, it's probably the best thing on the album, possibly one of the best things VS has ever done, but then the solo comes in and it's decent at best, and the song more or less meanders from there. Still, this is definitely not a song to miss.
The absolute highlight of the album, though, is probably "Summoning the Powers". This strange, dark, epic number still never fails to send shivers down my spine, especially the eerie opening guitar. The main song has a desperate, almost infernal sound to it, as if the listener is entering a forbidden, unknown realm. The dark, evil sounding riffs work perfectly with this premise, as does the conservative use of a dark organ sound. The best part of the song is defintiely where DeFeis does some wicked-sounding high croons, and then the instruments back off and he sings "Gods of the silence, gods of the damned, offer no mercy, withdraw your hand!". It's pretty hard to disagree with someone who sounds so godly himself. The song has some middle-eastern sounding influences later in the song, but they're worked in perfectly as usual, only adding to the infernal epicness.
"Flames of Thy Power" is an atmospheric, keyboard-driven number which builds tension into an a reflective, regretful chorus that works beautifully. The song sets the tone for the last leg of the album, which is morose and remorseful for the most part. This isn't the strongest song here, but it's solid nonetheless.
"Arms of Mercury" may as well be "A Token of My Hatred" pt. 2; it's more or less the main melodies from that song in a mournful, piano-driven ballad. As such, it's definitely good; although I prefer "Token", "Arms of Mercury" definitely has its own mood and personality to it, and the melodies are great, without breaking into the mediocre soloing we hear in "Token". Definitely a great song.
"By the Gods" is a gruff, barbaric number that unfortunately has pretty weak riffs and doesn't do much of anything. There are one or two good ideas here, but ultimately the song is weak and forgettable.
Following are a number of interludes that do little on their own, with the exception of "The Judgment of the Son", which is a short, succinct song which displays a crisp dichotomy of emotions; dark, mournful verses contrast with a hopeful, bombastic chorus; both are excellent, and the contrast makes the feelings even more intense and poignant. It contains few ideas, but those it has are executed well. As far as the rest, there are some good ideas scattered here and there, but for the most part they might as well be skipped; they add to the concept but don't contribute much musically.
"When the Legends Die" is another dark, keyboard-driven ballad. Unfortunately, this is another weak song that drones on and on, leaving the listener just wanting it to finally end. Again, there are a few good ideas here, but it's drowned under the pompous, dull ramblings of DeFeis.
The next three songs are also interludes, and do very little musically. Not much else to report here.
Last is "Resurrection Day", an epic which sadly has more in common with the last few songs of the album than anything else; it's decent, but spotty, with some good ideas and some bad ones thrown together, and at times feels more like a rock song to me than anything else. It reuses the melody from "The Judgment of the Son", which is one of the good ideas, but has a lot of weak riffs and a poor acoustic opening. It may not be completely skippable, but it's certainly not worthy to join the ranks of album closers like "Veni, Vidi, Vici". Ultimately a mediocre ending to what is largely a great album.
Although it drops off after "Arms of Mercury", The House of Atreus: Act II is a worthy follow up to Act I, powerful in its dichotomy of bombast and sorrow (at least up to "Arms of Mercury"), and offering some of the choicest selections in VS's discography. Again, while it's probably the weakest of the five "classic" albums beginning with Marriage I, it's still definitely an album you don't want to miss.