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Yeah, that's how I'd describe this album when compared to its predecessor. Much like Maiden's third album compared to their sophomore, the production here is better by large margins, making the sound seem much more developed; it's generally more accessible, and when the songs rule, they really fucking kick insane amounts of ass, "Emalaith" being pretty much Virgin Steele's "Hallowed Be Thy Name". But looking at the album as a whole, there's the reason why, much like Killers was superior to NOTB, Marriage Part One is superior to Part Two - while the former offered continuous brilliance with almost exclusively awesome, memorable tracks throughout, on its successor, there's quite a few songs that are by no means bad, but don't really rule either - they're just kind of there. Fun tracks, nice to listen to, never annoying or boring, just - well, not spectacular at all.
That said, this is still not only a good, but in fact a totally essential album. The weaker bits don't truly harm it, and my god when this album rules, it gets even better than the peaks of the overall more even Part One. And as for variation, this is also one of Virgin Steele's peaks, almost on a par with the Atreus albums - whether straightforward Speed/Power tracks like "A Symphony of Steele" or "Devil/Angel" kick you right in the face, a beautiful soft ballad such as "Strawgirl" makes its appearance, more Epic Numbers like "Crown of Glory" consume your attention, or the totally out-of-this-world epics "Prometheus the Fallen One" and of course the insanely amazing "Emalaith" come in and show you just why life is worth living. There's overall probably a bit more keyboards as opposed to the previous release, and more varied keyboards too, with different kinds of orchestration coming up more often rather than mostly pianos. No need to fear an overdose though - there's never more than two different keys at a time. That's how to do it - never too much, but always in perfect fashion, augmenting the music just at the right points.
The lyrics - damn well-done. Where Part One revolved more around Judeo-Christian religious themes, Part Two moves more to the Pagan side, whilst hinting more strongly towards what's to come on Invictus. The two songs relating to the Norse Ragnarök seem to stand rather on their own, while for example, the story of Prometheus fits perfectly into the Trilogy's theme concerning the oppression of Man by tyrannical, selfish Gods, finally brought out in full on Invictus.
So, for the weaker bits - they're actually kinda stuffed into two blocks: tracks three to six, and more or less the last three, though "Victory Is Mine" kind of borders on being more great and memorable. There's plenty of variation in these "just kind of there" tracks too - ballads like "Transfiguration" and "Unholy Water", while a lot better than early VS ballads, just aren't near the level of "Forever Will I Roam", "Child of Desolations" or "When The Legends Die" - or Strawgirl, for that matter. The interlude, "From Chaos to Creation" is drawn out for slightly too long; "Twilight of the Gods" is a solid mid-paced rocker that moves along quite efficiently and as usual has a totally good chorus, but thanks to somewhat unclear singing in one spot, becomes rather involuntarily amusing:
"my axe gleams in the sun,
blinding my enemies when the battle's begun"
Figure out what it sounds like when "axe" is sung not too clearly ;)
What? Okay, fine, no more obscenities, back to the music. "Rising Unchained" is another solid, more epic and heavier number.
"Victory Is Mine" is a nice speedy Power Metal song that borders on brilliance with its really cool chorus, while still not on the level of the really great stuff here. "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell Revisited" - meh, it's nothing special, and somehow lacks the special something that the closer of the previous album had.
Okay, so much for the worse part of this review. Now let's get to just why this album still gets a 93 rating from me though all that stuff till now was not all that impressive.
You've counted? Good. There's six tracks left, amounting to almost 40 minutes. Those tracks - holy mother of God, Zeus, Odin and Satan combined, does this stuff ever RULE! The opener, "A Symphony of Steele" - fucking ace anthem. "Strawgirl" - a really beautiful ballad, almost on a par with the band's loads and loads of other genius ballads. "Devil/Angel" - as Boris pointed out, excellent Priest worship right here, grade-A Speed Metal.
All right, so much for the totally awesome. Now on to the completely-out-of-this-world-this-world. Crown of Glory - man that intro alone is so damn awesome (VS would use it again later, with good reason!), then those verses, that damn chorus, and behold the riff right after it, not to mention two passages entirely different from the verse or chorus appearing right out of nowhere in the middle - yes, THIS is why you're listening to a Virgin Steele album. A masterpiece of mid-paced Epic Power Metal right then already - and then just to finish it off, EXACTLY at the right moment, they resume to the intro line at the end. Songwriting perfection right here, it can't get better...
...that's what you're thinking, before the two centerpieces of the album come in. "Prometheus The Fallen One" starts with its slow, long intro, then beginning with simple verse-chorus construction but leading into loads of different passages and melodies, constant mood changes arranged just so each feeling has just the time to sink in. The stage is set, the standard's damn high - and in comes "Emalaith", to top it all off. A masterpiece of close to ten minutes, and every second of it a total highlight, this track right here stands good chances in the tough contest for the single greatest Virgin Steele song ever made, and is easily in the top five along with such fine company as "The Burning of Rome", "Veni, Vidi, Vici", "Kingdom of the Fearless" and "Resurrection Day". So out of this world it's hard to believe. That godly dark, atmospheric intro, all the different passages throughout, the dozen or so references to other songs, the brilliant conversion of previously-used melodies into something that sounds new yet familiar at the same time - "Child of the Desolation cry to me - under stars that have died, under skies of pain we are born. ooh yeah, we are one, forever we'll be Oh my love, we'll defy death and meet on Holy Ground". There's simply so damn much happening in this song I might go on for hours describing it, but it still won't come close - listen to it, and let the music talk.
Another note - the drums on this album are absolutely top-notch, a definite improvement over the solid but largely unspectacular work on the predecessor. Varied, with a very keen sense for rhythim and just the right amount of technicality, they're beyond merely supporting the music and a major factor of their own.
So what's this overall? Well, it ain't quite Marriage Part One in the width, nor either of the House of Atreus albums, but dammit, there's still some of the best Epic Metal ever made on here, even if it doesn't go on throughout all of the album. It's probably their most accessible release, with some more instantly likeable numbers in addition to the complex epics that are kind of hard to get into, and easily the best production one could hope for. Defeis is in top form vocally, employing an excellent range and sense for emotion and dramaticism, and while there are a few times where he seems to be trying a bit too hard to sound harsher, rather Eric-Adams-ish, he still delivers his own, unique and outstanding performance for the most part.
Bottom line: Anoher essential album by Virgin Steele, definite must-have for anyone into Traditional Heavy or Power Metal.
P.S.: The band's also paying a little bit of tribute to Iron Maiden on this album. I'll leave it to you to figure out just where ;)