There are bands you understand, bands you’ll never understand and bands you used to understand. New York’s very own Virgin Steele definitely falls into the latter category. Growing up in the 80s, we knew them as a Manowar-esque classic metal band with gritty edge and occasional epical leanings. Over time they incorporated more symphonics and strived for a bigger, more grandiose sound, which worked well on albums like House of Atreus. However, with Visions of Eden, vocalist, multi-instrumentalist Dave DeFeis started taking the band in strange, quasi-operatic, chamber music directions at the expense of the metal. Follow up The Black Light Bacchanalia was an overwrought glob of easy listening rock, tepid metal, quasi-classical doodlings and dinner party music and it went over about as well as a Gwar concert at a seminary college formal. I doubted they could ever top it for sheer spectacle, but I was wrong. Nocturnes of Hellfire and Damnation is a hopelessly ass-tastic tangle of good and bad ideas, amazingly self-indulgent writing and a complete refusal to self-edit. After many spins, I truly have no idea what DeFeis was trying to accomplish here or what his grand vision was, and I’m starting to think he didn’t either.
And things seem to start off so well, with opener “Luzifer’s Hammer” sounding like a partial throwback to the House of Atreus days of classic metal. Dave sounds good and the music is rousing and chest-thumping in that old timey Manowar way. Then around the 1:35 point, Dave starts doing these piercing little girl screams – the kind an eight year old might make when given a pony. They kill an otherwise good song quicker than an impromptu poetry slam kills a keg party and I just can’t understand why he included them.
Things recover for “Queen of the Dead,” which is a decent enough example of their older sound and they drop a great surprise on “Black Sun – Black Mass” which is a re-recording of a song by mega obscure 80s act Exorcist, who released an early example of what would become death metal. The band was long rumored to be a novelty project from DeFeis and fellow Virgin alum. This confirms what was suspected and it’s a nice nod to those aware of the band and their history, and it works surprisingly well as a Virgin Steele tune. The stand out is “Persephone” which is a righteous blend of Manowar, Queensryche, prog-metal and Pink Floyd. It’s a great tune and shows what DeFeis is capable of, but also serves as a stark reminder that the rest of the album is nowhere near it quality-wise.
There are other worthwhile moments like the moody grind of “Devilhead” and the strange merger of greasy hard rock, grunge and metal on “We Disappear,” but the back-end of the album shits the bed more than any bed has ever been shat. The shittery begins with “Glamour” which is easily one of the worst songs of 2015. It takes bluesy riffs and combines them with pseudo-epic arrangements as DeFeis gives one of the most over-the-top, egomaniacal vocal performances in history, seemingly oblivious to the song his vocals were meant for. He overenunciates words to the nth degree, turning “fascination” into fascinat-schone,” he coos seductively, uses Eric Adams-like rough barks and attempts strange baritones. It’s a total shit show without scheme, design or direction.
Elsewhere, “Delirium” is essentially soft, ballad rock dressed up with metal curtains and throw pillows and those girlish shrieks make an unwelcome return, along with another diva performance from Dave “The Rose” Midler. “Hymns to Damnation” is a scrotum-free, interest defying ballad suitable for VH1 and the mispronouncing returns as “damnation” becomes “damna-schone,” and surprise, surprise, album closer “Fallen Angels” is yet another dose of soft mush rock. Talk about ending with a whimper….
As talented as Dave DeFeis is, his ego and ambitions have become the death of this band. He has an amazing voice, but his rock god compulsions get the better of him every time lately. He delivers some of the most ludicrous performances in metal history here and it seems there was no one around to restrain his megalomaniacal impulses. Not only is he incapable of vocal restraint, he can’t seem to limit his songs to workable lengths. Even the better tunes run two or three minutes over and it’s clear the man has become a musical narcissist of legendary proportions. On the plus side, the guitar work of Edward Pursino is often tasteful and unstated, while his solos are quite captivating.
I really want to support these hometown heroes, but this is album three of increasingly unappetizing cheese. The worst part is, the good songs make you wish they’d get their heads from their arses and release a consistent METAL album. This Virgin is officially defiled.