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Ah, the joys of heavy metal music. Despite sharing some of the same flaws as the rest of humanity, at times I cannot bring myself to find fault in the efforts and directions of those who actual make music for themselves and the joy it brings. The year was 1995 – hardly the peak year for traditional, Romantic and library frequenting heavy metal, but the pairing of Defeis and Pursino once again gave the sense that rather than setting their eyes on financial gains (in the mid 90s this would have fetched a rather nice Mega Drive) and flash in the pan glory (which they perhaps longed for with ‘Life Among the Ruins’, though releasing a Whitesnake styled hard rock album in the grunge years doesn’t make much commercial sense either!) you feel that they are simply making the music they wish to make, and good lord is it glorious. Virgin Steele, for these reasons and more, have absolutely every right to wake up in the morning, clasp their broadswords and boldly proclaim ‘victory is mine!’
Being My Very First Virgin Steele Album (tm) and possessing a rather clichéd power metal moniker, I sceptically downloaded this album expecting the sort of Helloween lite stuff that began to come to the fore in the mid 90s and as such the track listing had been altered. But this actually gave the album better pacing as ‘Crown of Glory’ occupied the opening slot and it makes much better sense in being there than the less interesting ‘Symphony of Steele’. ‘Crown of Glory’ is pretty much the archetypal Virgin Steele song – again, it’s those heavenly and hellish contrasts that in no way lead us into some sort of heavy metal purgatory (which I imagine is full of frustrating mid-80s Saxon albums). From the opening choral heraldry to the galloping yet melodically assured riffs, it shifts seamlessly on its musical journey. Lyrically, it’s perhaps Defeis’ finest set ever, the ‘bury me beside the endless sea’ section being harrowingly beautiful. Recently, I’ve moved away from the splendid manor of my family home into an airing cupboard situated between two kebab shops (Abra Kebabra and Afet’s Spice Emporium, in case you’re wondering) and the ‘why must you cry for the life you are leaving behind’ line is again very moving; perfectly suited for any moving house/new pet/old pet resurrection occasion. In all, a fantastic snapshot of what Virgin Steele is all about and a great, if accidental, opener.
So the perfect opener wasn’t actually the opener? Strange that, but the rest of the album is perfectly paced. From the galloping, familiar quasi-Maiden tones of ‘Twilight of the Gods’ with its chord changes that are very much obvious yet most welcome. It’s fairly representative of the more muscular sound the second instalment of the ‘Marriage…’ series has in comparison to its predecessor, but the Romantic touches are still very much pronounced. It’s the perfect mid-point between the barbarous and sinewy sound on the ‘Atreus…’ series and ‘Invictus’ and the softer, albeit still strong sound as heard on ‘Age of Consent’ and ‘The Marriage of Heaven & Hell: Part II’, though that description would render those albums the musical equivalent of toilet paper. Then from these brisk numbers we have more conceptual and thematic songs like ‘Emalaith’ – which is a name of Defeis’ own creation and rather Celtic sounding – a truly stunning piece of work, with its modal, moody guitars and roaring choruses. The song has a striking beauty to it and again shows that famed Virgin Steele depth, which ensures they can’t be lumped in with the Running Wilds of this world. Though keys are utilised effectively throughout the whole album, the accenting of the vocals by ghostly keyboard flourishes is masterful in this particular song. Further demonstrating the perfect pacing of this album is that after such a bleak song as ‘Emalaith’ we are taken (I mean that literally, this album is quite a journey… so don’t stop believing) to its softest and most romantic point of the album and I don’t mean pudendum muleris either. Hey, if Defeis can use the same themes throughout albums then I can use the same jokes! The keys here are majestic with a chiming beauty to them. I’ll even forgive them the use of the words ‘savage’ and ‘garden’ in the chorus.
There is one anomaly on the album, ‘Devil/Angel’. It’s a good old-fashioned slab of Priest worship and if your familiar with the VS version of ‘Desert Plains’ you’d know already that the boys do a killer take on the Priest. I would have a problem with this black sheep in the ‘Marriage…’ family except the riffs are fucking fantastic. Glen and KK wish they could come of with this kind of stuff these days… they also might want to ask David for a couple of lessons on how to do a conceptual keyboard based album and not end up with ‘Saucy Jack – The Musical’.
Truly saving the best until last, ‘Unholy Water’ and ‘Victory is Mine’ close the album in an absolutely triumphant manner. Once more it’s the sublime contrast in mood between the two that makes it work so well. ‘Unholy Water’ is an atmospheric number, emotionally heavy and brooding. The guitar work is very much of note; the use of 9th chords is commendable. I find that I have a strange prejudice against 9th chords; I tend to associate them with whiny alternative bands. But being predictably awesome as he is, Pursino crafts a weighty riff that is both emotionally and sonically heavy. The guitar sound here is weirdly over-saturated and one of the guitar tracks reeks of those cheap Boss distortion pedals… but this slight production flaw only adds to the atmosphere. I suppose the song is a power ballad really, albeit in a full-breasted and hair-wetted kind of way and predictably enough (oh no, arena rock clichés!) it’s got a stunning guitar solo. Melodic yet scintillating, Pursino really lets rip but as per usual he never descends into the plectrum melting gymnastics that his virtuosity would allow. It’s the climax in a very sexually charged song… let’s just say things get sticky. Then from the depths of despair comes that good old sense of the unconquerable spirit that Virgin Steele does so well. ‘Victory is Mine’ is a bounding and energetic number, it really has a great sense of movement and life to it. The riffs, in the hands of lesser mortals, could have been merely standard power metal fare but Virgin Steele recognises the mark of the unimaginative and trite… latter day Kai Hansen they are not. They will run through the hills where he hides and grab him by his ginger mane asking; “Why so little imagination Kai!?” It’s familiar but fresh and an absolute high point of the album. On a slightly comical note I actually thought one of the lines in the chorus said ‘noble tears and kidney pie' which, sadly, it doesn’t. Damn you American singers!
‘The Marriage of Heaven & Hell: Part II’ shows the arrival of Frank Gilchirest on drums and he does a fine job. I don’t think he’s ever quite had a production job that does his drumming justice but he’s always given a great performance. For instance, the chorus of ‘Crown of Glory’ has Frank kicking up a storm with some ferocious flailing of limbs… great stuff indeed.
It’s rather hard to find actual fault with this album, I’ve been listening to it continuously for months and I can’t say I’ve ever tired of its noble charm. Perhaps the best place to start with Virgin Steele, well; it’s certainly not the bleating goat dullard hard rock of the Jack Starr era! One of the best (and sadly unsung) heavy metal albums you’re likely to find. Go forth and purchase!