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Virgin Steele - The Marriage of Heaven and Hell - Part One

by Matt Hensch

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From the topmost step of the earth to the depths of Hades itself, Virgin Steele-American gladiators of heavy/power metal-released three albums between 1994 and 1998 that solidified the band's legacy as one of the all-time greats. Few releases compare to the surreal majesty captured by Virgin Steele's three-part "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" saga, unleashed at a time when many metal warriors had either sold out, disbanded, or silently slipped from shadow to shadow just to live another day. Virgin Steele, when metal's back was against the wall, ditched the hard rock pretenses that had boiled within the band since day one and shifted gears into one of the most honest and brazen forms of heavy/power metal the genre has ever known. The three chapters of "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" remain masterpieces of improbable profundity, layered intricately with outstanding musical depth and remarkable performances.

Calling the style 'barbaric romanticism,' Virgin Steele emerged as a phoenix with fire on its wings and the fog of smoke heavy in its presence. The first of these three chapters, aptly titled "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell - Part One," is an outstanding statement that rivals and even surpasses the prime works of many of metal's elites. Although the 'barbaric romanticism' label might seem pretentious on paper, the tag is actually a truthful description of Virgin Steele's texture at the time-workmanlike in its approach yet sophisticated in style, combining the elements of raw strength with an elegant sense of guile and mixing them both into an album that is cultured but far from overdone. "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell - Part One" is, in essence, metallic in nature yet classical in spirit-barbaric and romantic.

But these foundations weren't necessarily foreign to the Virgin Steele camp prior to the three-pronged saga. The band had mostly solidified select fragments of its musical mold throughout its first five albums, which, in varying degrees, show up in "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell - Part One." The big difference here is that the inconsistency that mired and clogged up either a few songs or the whole package on those records is nonexistent; the songwriting, performances, structural integrity, and atmosphere of the album are superb. "Part One," however, suffers from one intangible problem that also taints the other two sequences of Virgin Steele's prime: it eventually ends. But David DeFeis and Edward Pursino can be forgiven for not cracking the time-space continuum, for they released what I think is one of the band's best records and a gem within the genre.

It's a tremendously long album, standing at seventy minutes in length through fourteen songs. But during this duration Virgin Steele smoothly integrates a wide-minded manifesto of musical sequences bursting with identity and vigor. The general style sort of transcends basic definition (other than calling it 'barbaric romanticism'), at least in a rudimentary sense. If I'm going to be quick about it, and keep in mind this is as brief as it gets, let's call Virgin Steele Manowar with brain cells. Much of Pursino's riffing style involves staying straightforward and robust, and certainly Virgin Steele has many common elements of the traditional heavy metal blueprint. Sure, a heavy/power metal record at heart, but "Part One" has much more depth than just the expected candid, stout riffs and bombastic choruses.

The source of this profundity is twofold. David DeFeis, though an incredibly unique and wonderful vocalist, is more than anything a master craftsman whose awareness to the many angles and themes of music is simply unrivaled by any other composer in the metal genre-even, say, Steve Harris at the height of his compositional abilities. Ed Pursino is the spiritual yin to DeFeis' yang, proving himself to have a stellar arsenal of riffs and a lead guitar mindfulness that is both scholarly and forceful. "Part One," with these mutual minds, contains what is not only one of the many heights of the Virgin Steele blueprint but heavy/power metal of the highest order and a tremendous, multilayered voyage wherein every song is a monumental statement.

Going back to DeFeis, this release is the absolute point in Virgin Steele's development where the pieces of his compositional and vocal abilities integrated perfectly into the group's direction. His low register and razor-sharp tone make him a one-of-a-kind vocalist who truly sounds like no other; regardless of setting he sounds magnificent. But speaking of setting, he's dealing with riff-driven, brazen epics like "I Will Come for You" and "Trail of Tears" while juggling commercially-geared vocal melodies on "Blood and Gasoline" and soothing, serene phrases throughout "Forever I May Roam" and "House of Dust," the album's ballads; all of which work flawlessly in his grasp. An album of significant variety and significant quality requires a significant leader. If "Part One" proves anything at all, it's that DeFeis, as a songwriter and vocalist, is one of the all-time greats.

His compositional efforts, however, are the icing on the cake. These songs are jewels-some shimmering with the color of blood, others pristine and unspoiled. The clean guitar structure of "Self Crucifixion" after a few robust rockers, once again, shows the many dimensions of Virgin Steele (plus it features probably the best Pursino solo ever, which is no small feat given that all of his solos are extremely well written and poignant.) But there's no topping "Life among the Ruins" as the apex of "Part One," with that adrenaline-pumping riff and DeFeis bellowing out that renowned chorus: "You were a rose, you were a blade!" The stuff of legends right there. The speedy offensives of "The Raven Song" and "Blood of the Saints" balance the implausible harmony among the group's many scopes, whereas the softer anthems are some of the finest ballads I've ever heard and sound natural under the knife of Virgin Steele's faultless traits.

Triumphant doesn't even begin to describe what it is like to experience the first part of "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell." Its seventy minutes of bliss hold all the tangibles and intangibles of a classic release upon which the bricks of Virgin Steele's splendid run were first set. An incredible rhythm section stacked atop Pursino's emotional guitar work and DeFeis' picture-perfect vocals gathering under the life-giving configurations to push the whole thing beyond the basic standards and themes of metal-what a fantastic achievement this is. I could continue to throw adjectives and praise at this, but I'll stop, cut the crap, and get to the goods: "Part One" is a masterpiece, no debate. And you know what? This isn't even Virgin Steele's best album. From its whispers to its screams, "Part One" is as good as it gets.

Virgin Steele - The Marriage of Heaven and Hell - Part One
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