Released: 2015, SPV/Steamhammer
I recently read a somewhat-less-than-flattering review of the latest Virgin Steele album, NOCTURNES OF HELLFIRE AND DAMNATION. It was written by a good friend of mine who I admire and respect and his comments made me stop to consider what I have enjoyed about the band all these years and this album in general. As a die-hard fan I took it upon my self to go on a noble quest to defend the honour of poor defenceless Virgin Steele and write a bit of a counter-point review.
As the band creeps towards their 35th year in the business they have just released their 14th full-length studio album, on the SPV label. The veteran band is on a 4-5 year album cycle but there is no shortage of material as their catalogue tends to get reissued quite often with many bonus tracks, perhaps a testament to the productivity of main man David DeFeis and his partner in crime for 30+ years Edward. The line-up has been stable for about 20 years now!
The album will be issued apparently with three different album covers, which while cool, is annoying by punishing the true fans that now have to buy all three versions. They should insert a little, single-page alternate cover option like Darkane did for EXPANDING SENSES so you can choose which cover art you want to display. As always, there are various versions with various bonus tracks, covers, re-recordings and so forth, for the ultimate collectors and fans.
As for the album itself, this stands as a very interesting piece in the Virgin Steele catalogue. The first immediate point is that they have largely abandoned their long-running neo-classical themes based on of Greek, Roman, and Medieval history. Instead this time they are exploring a bit of a gothic theme, nothing new in Metal, but new to the band. They also have gone back slightly into the past and rediscovered some of their old influences. Songs like ‘Glamour’ and ‘Demolition Queen’ are a real throwback with a heavy rock and roll swagger and even some minor blues influence with even hints of Led Zeppelin! Other songs are darker, faster and heavier in the traditional later-era Virgin Steele style. There are a few ballads and even a few creepy instrumental/spoken word interludes like ‘A Damned Apparition’ and ‘To Darkness Eternal’. If anything this album is eclectic and not as streamlined or focused as the previous few albums. It is a bit more song based. There are still hints of acoustic piano and some orchestration but they are downplayed as compared to some previous albums where they are emphasized.
Overall the album is dark, quite dark. David has never steered away from dark topics but this whole album, the tones, the lyrics, the album art have a Halloween/gothic feel with tracks like, ‘Queen Of The Dead, ‘Luzifer’s Hammer’, Black Sun-Black Mass’, Fallen Angels’, ‘Hymn to Damnation’; the whole thing is like Ed and Dave have been listening to their Type O Negative or Cradle of Filth albums with a dark and depressive and oppressive tone across the whole album. Despite that there are some really fiery and spontaneous solos happening, lots of great guitar work as always.
One of the focal points of my colleagues review of NOCTURNES was the vocal performance of David. On this album DeFeis really emphasizes his various vocal techniques and multiple styles. In fact, he sings the HELL out of this album! Some listeners may not always consider this a good thing. Instead of just singing ‘the words’ he is constantly, (and I do mean constantly!) adding vocal sounds and inflections, shrieks, growls, moans and wails (and his common cheetah growl thing he does) all wrapped up in his warbling falsetto, much like King Diamond, that he is known for across his entire career. David sounds like a one-man haunted house! A prime example of this is his performance on the opening of ‘Persephone’ where he really shows his range and style but without a trace or irony of self-awareness. The song itself is a great seven + minute opus with great ebb and flow but his style makes for an easy target for people (even fans) to say, ‘What the hell’? and scratch their heads…or at times laugh at the wailing vocals on the introduction.
I think that is one of the great assets of Virgin Steele, namely DeFeis’ great and unique style. There are many great singers but I might suggest that very few are totally different. When you hear him, you know it is Virgin Steele. It is not like many Death Metal bands where many guttural screamers are virtually indistinguishable. Even in mellower genres, a vocalist can be recognized based on the inherent tone of the voice but they can sound the same. For example, Todd LaTorre can sound like exactly Geoff Tate. Ripper Owens can sound exactly like Halford. Jorn Lande can sound exactly like Dio. All of those guys are superb singers but they are not as unique as a guy like David DeFeis. Maybe that is why I’m tolerant of the quirky vocal delivery all these years, he is doing something different than the 1000 dudes who want to sound like Phil Anselmo or James Hetfield. I read an interview with David on his website and he used the phrase ‘The Voice As A Weapon’. He said he does not just sing but uses all those noises as another instrument and it accomplishes the intended impact. So, I have been much more tolerant and accepting of his admittedly bizarre vocal style over the years.
After just a few listens NOCTURNES is creeping it’s way up my list of favourite Virgin Steele albums, somewhere in the top six perhaps. Should this be the first Virgin Steele album you listen to? Perhaps not but for long-time fans it is an unexpected and welcome incorporation of the many elements that make this band and album so wonderful.