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'Once we had beauty our sun blazed in passion we lived alive...'
If the mainly deceased disco castrato collective, the Bee Gees asked their listeners 'How deep is your love?’ – which I always thought was a cleverly hid innuendo asking the depth of a lover's pudendum muleris – then, for a brief moment I ask you how deep is your metal? Virgin Steele, to me at least, is a band of incredible depth. Musically and lyrically, where other bands may fall by the wayside Defeis and Pursino persist in delivering metal that is emotional and intelligent. Though it acknowledges its listener's own intellect by not forcing it down their throat, as so many "thinking man's metal" bands would have. Furthermore, they are not without rational, as none of Virgin Steele's concepts come across as aloof. Though the idea of Barbarian Romantic metal may come across as pompous, it somehow manages to avoid the potential pitfalls of conceptual and literary heavy metal and maintains an earthy melodic sensibility and the values of the forefathers of the genre.
To me, Virgin Steele are to power metal what Jethro Tull were to progressive rock. Whereas Tull had their humour and deft folkish touches, Virgin Steele have an understanding of the way in which classical and metal can be married which far surpasses, say, Rhapsody's complete lack of tact. I can tell Defeis actually listened to his Rainbow records rather than just staring at the covers and going, "Ronnie James Dio! You can't deny the RAWK!” Often Fates Warning are often singled out as the power metal band for people who aren't actually into power metal will enjoy, to me Virgin Steele are of similar ilk, albeit a better band. When I first saw the words 'Marriage of Heaven & Hell: Part One' emblazoned across the album's brilliant artwork (despite the naked chick's strangely droopy left bosom or strangely nipple-like elbow), I thought to myself; "Ah, William Blake! A marriage hearse, the ghost of a flea... Little Lamb who made thee!” But no, 'Marriage...' may share the same title as Blake's poem, but Defeis wasn't actually thinking of old Billy Blake in his writing of this album. Rather, he was simply reflecting his love of opposites, you know - the Noble Savage, the contrasting namesake of the band and its initials that in a boxing ring would symbolise the idea of conflict. But this is no Rocky styled brawl as with the 'Marriage...' albums VS perfected having the dichotomy of combining metallic savagery with softer passages with ease. But still, 'Marriage...' has numerous literary references, though non of them are glaringly obvious, again thankfully not going "I'm clever, you’re thick... Look at me. Teacher, I'm here!”
Ever since the 'Noble Savage' album Virgin Steele, for me at least, has been all about David Defeis and guitar side man Edward Pursino. After one gets away from the more mainstream metal singers, you generally get repetitions of the big three. This bloke sounds like Halford, this one sounds like Dio and this fellow even nicked Dickinson's bowl cut. Defeis however, is none of these. He acknowledges their greatness, but does not wish to simply perform a cabaret version of them. Which is a very different approach to every clown who sung in the perpetually-overrated-goon-magnet that is Jon Schaffer's Talent Vacuum (I don't think that's their official name, mind you). Defeis may be responsible for much of the vision and drive of Virgin Steele, but his powers are considerably weaker without his long-time side-man, Edward Pursino. Pursino is a gifted guitarist whose solos are racy, melodic and never out of place. His tone is a lot warmer than on future albums that suit the songs perfectly. More importantly, however, is the trouser tightening lick at 2:32 in 'Self Crucifixion' and it's all over this album! What a fantastic piece of legato, Edward's solos light up many of these songs like a brilliant sunshine on a cloudy day, not that these songs really needed further illumination.
One of the many successes of 'The Marriage of Heaven & Hell: Part One' is that its seventy minutes of, at times, complex, usually bombastic and always teetering the very thin plank in which the quail invested seas of Overblown reside below (well, sharks simply wouldn't have been apt!). 'I Will Come for You' is a welcome introduction to the bombastic and skilfully melodious approach of the Pursino era of Virgin Steele. In this song we are first introduced to the theme of the 'Marriage...' series, this subtle classical reference, composers (fucking 'posers!) would use the same themes in different compositions. Again, this reflects the deftness of Defeis's compositional approach, unlike the metal bands who would actually force themselves into the orchestra pit and scream;
"I'm playing with an orchestra, look at it work!” Honestly, this approach is refreshing. So many times metal with classical influences reminds me of the remedial child forcing together two pieces of jigsaw that simply don't fit. Bless him. 'Weeping of the Spirits' is an example of emotionally heavy music that need not be trite or sappy. It's a powerful piece and a showcase for the perennial arse-kicker, David Defeis (except for those early albums in which he sounded like a bleating and lost goat about to be eaten by a bridge dwelling troll).
'Blood & Gasoline' is something of an amalgamation of the style seen on the formidable 'Age of Consent' album, the more commercially minded brief and melodic nature of say 'On the Wings of the Night' with a desperate, epic pathos as seen in 'The Burning of Rome...’ It's a clear highlight on a superior album. Lyrically, it eschews the ancient feel of Virgin Steele and focuses on the separation and distance modern life can cause with all its busy noises and lonely, vacant rooms. Spectacular stuff, really. Musically, Defeis's tinkling keyboard in the chorus could've so easily been all sugar and spice, but no, it adds to the atmosphere. The keyboard, in heavy metal, despite its stigma, is just another instrument. It can be used well or poorly; it all depends in whose hands it’s in. Should we state the guitar has no place in metal simply because Machine Head use them poorly? No, we should not. So let us all give keys a chance.
After the appropriately mid-paced mid section of the album, we bring things to a close with the speed metal of 'Blood of the Saints' and 'Life Among the Ruins'. The former being a ominous riff based number with all the hallmarks of classic Virgin Steele; the subtle piano underneath Edward's rip-roaring solos and of course, Davey wailing on about grandiose themes. 'Life Among the Ruins' is the penultimate number and a true classic. 'You were a rose, you were a blade', reflects the idea of opposing things in harmony. The riff could of been awkward with its slightly jaunty meter, but somehow it's not. It seems the Gods and Goddess's are smiling on Virgin Steele, as every potentially fatal flaw is briskly skipped past, just as a six-year-old girl narrowly avoids that dirty old hermit on the park bench.
So, if you wanted forward thinking and decidedly none-shite metal, you got it. 'Marriage...' screams from the mountains to the sea and in the deepest forest glades, startling all the elves, imps and lost scouts.