Virgin Steele occupy that most rarefied of categories; a USPM band who did their best work in the nineties. Having released massively ambitious concept albums such as “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” duology and “Invictus” at a time when the genre was all but extinct in the United States made the Long Island trio something of a cause celebre among niche aficionados, but following the acclaimed “House of Atreus” duology, they have increasingly faced criticism in the last decade for a perceived trend towards indulgence and hubristic lack of discipline, with albums growing ever longer and less frequent.
I have been a booster of the band as recently as the maligned “Black Light Bacchanalia,” which even through its elephantine, patently unearned running time and frequently samey textures, I felt possessed a certain classy, Hellenic atmosphere, an evocation of antiquity and splendour more subtle than might be found in the average continental power metal act. With their most recent outing “Nocturnes of Hellfire & Damnation,” however, I find abruptly that my goodwill has been exhausted. In the wake of Adramelch’s sublime “Opus,” an album which does subtle, reserved power metal with unwavering grace, it becomes hard to greet David Defeis’ faltering efforts at the same thing halfway.
First of all, “Nocturnes of Hellfire & Damnation,” clocks in at 79 minutes long, longer than “The Black Light Bacchanalia” and close to the limits of a CD – with 14 tracks, only the interludes “To Darkness Eternal” and “A Damned Apparition” come in under 4 minutes long. This running time is flagrantly not suited to the content it contains – it suffers, rather more acutely, from the same ennui that has followed all of Iron Maiden’s 21st century albums to a greater or lesser extent, in that it features too many songs that are themselves too long, particularly the six-to-eight-minuters that populate the record’s second half.
These songs may be more guitar driven than the majority to be found in “Visions of Eden” or “The Black Light Bacchanalia,” but the riffs that propel them don’t exactly seek out new and exciting variations on classic metal standards – the triplets of “Black Sun – Black Mass” or the galloping rhythms of “Persephone” feel like tutorials in the basic principles of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. The rhythm guitar is less the focus than the bedrock of sprawling, languid compositions which frequently cede prominence to the tinkle of keyboards. Taken in concert with the medium tempos and the lack of heft in the guitar tone, the album has a floaty, effervescent quality one doesn’t normally associate with USPM.
None of this is exactly unpleasant, mostly just kind of flaccid and insubstantial, and in fairness, “Nocturnes…” has its moments when the instrumentation becomes genuinely compelling, most often when it settles into a catchy, percussive groove, as in “Demolition Queen” and “Delirium.” To my surprise, the clear high point of the record for me was “We Disappear,” which finds Virgin Steele taking cues from 90s groove metal, driven by a lockstep-steady downtuned riff that sounds like it might have been written for Dream Theater’s “Awake,” and which leads up to a startling, blistering dual-harmonised solo.
While the tepid, overstretched songs can be forgiven, however, what’s harder to set aside is David DeFeis’ frankly bizarre vocal performance. The long serving frontman’s pipes earned him the nickname “The Lion” in the band’s early days, but in his more recent outings, his performances have featured fewer and fewer strong, sustained notes, with more and more trilling falsetto squeals and strangled rasps in their place. Fair enough, not everyone’s voice can age like Eric Adams, but I had nursed a hope that these were simply affectations, and that DeFeis would eventually return to a more classical power metal style. On the contrary, he seems to have doubled down on what he was doing on “The Black Light Bacchanalia,” to the point where his vocals are actively deleterious to the music around them. He interjects into otherwise passable melodies, seemingly at random, with tuneless castrato squeaks and yelps of “rowr!” like he’s catcalling women on the other side of the road. It’s deeply distracting and unpleasant, and reads like the overcompensation of an aging singer begging us not to notice that his voice isn’t as strong as it once was.
Virgin Steele are the definition of veterans of the metal scene, stalwarts who flourished through a period when the mainstream was pointedly hostile to their grandiose sound and imagery. Now that they’re at that late stage where they’re releasing an 80-minute record once every four or five years, it’s tempting to grant their new work a measure of stature and dignity it doesn’t particularly warrant. And yes, “Nocturnes of Hellfire & Damnation” does have its moments where it rekindles the same fire found in classics like “Cry for Pompeii” or “Blood and Gasoline,” but they have to fight for recognition through the soupy, indistinct mass around them. Although I’d be happy to be proven wrong, I fear Virgin Steele’s best days are behind them – in the case of this particular group of veterans, it may be time to declare out with the old, in with the new.
01) Lucifer’s Hammer
02) Queen of the Dead
03) To Darkness Eternal
04) Black Sun – Black Mass
07) Demolition Queen
08) The Plague and the Fire
09) We Disappear
10) A Damned Apparition
13) Hymns to Damnation
14) Fallen Angels