Virgin Steele - Nocturnes of Hellfire & Damnation

by Matt Hensch

I honestly don't get much pleasure ramming my inscribed shotgun up the bum of "Nocturnes of Hellfire & Damnation" and sending it skyward-a feeling of displeasure with a side of cheerlessness is more like it. I'm not testing the waters by saying Virgin Steele's prime-one of the best stints of any heavy metal band ever-is in the rearview mirror, but that didn't stop the group from releasing the neat "Visions of Eden" after the remarkable "The House of Atreus: Act II." "The Black Light Bacchanalia," the bovine wonder that followed "Visions of Eden," showed a huge decline in excellence, as the moments of Virgin Steele-esque brilliance it presented were strictly limited and suffocated by an ungodly excess of stuff that pretty much did nothing.

"Nocturnes of Hellfire & Damnation" learns from its predecessor, but concurrently embraces its errors. The grandiose approach here teeters on a delicate thread between immeasurable splendor and sounding downright infuriating. In the past, Ed Pursino and David DeFeis raised an empire of majestic imagery and beauty; saying it worked was an understatement. But on "The Black Light Bacchanalia," what they did was pretentious and without direction, and thus made the record nearly insufferable. Again, "Nocturnes of Hellfire & Damnation" dips between both sides of Virgin Steele's quality spectrum, albeit conflictingly. There are excellent tracks here, but most range from listenable to tedious with the occasional I-want-to-throw-this-out-a-window cut on the side. It's not so much of a return to better days as it is aged-induced inertia.

There are a number of things to praise, and even to acknowledge as tapped from the sources of former glories. Ed Pursino has a strong presence on this album, thank Christ. His robust and intense riffing style makes a colossal impression on many of these songs, at times the antithesis of whatever he was doing on "The Black Light Bacchanalia." "Nocturnes of Hellfire & Damnation" also contorts itself around darker lyrical themes-Satan, occultism, doing evil stuff just because, etc.-that are represented in Virgin Steele's unique little way. The tone is Virgin Steele with a blanket thrown over its head, so as to make it spooky. It's a neat direction for the group, turning the lights down a notch and making a darker album that holds a traditional epic atmosphere under a different lens.

But the initial hold of a more focused Virgin Steele record drops the ball early on. Virgin Steele was never a stupid band, crushing the unwise with a barbaric pestle stirring within a romantic mortar. The dumb mistakes within "Nocturnes of Hellfire & Damnation" are mostly outside the actual music, which has its fair share of blunders, too. Sticking out like a wart the size of Montana is the album's unreasonably asinine running time: "Nocturnes of Hellfire & Damnation" runs for SEVENTY-NINE MINUTES OVER FOURTEEN SONGS, HOLY SH*T. Well, Virgin Steele made monstrous albums work back in the day, but the prime has passed and they no longer have the luxury to enthrall listeners by putting on a spectacle of incredible music. Case in point, way too much of this is filler, and trying to sift through the whole thing in one sitting is pretty much an endurance test.

A fair number of these tracks are riff-based, giving Pursino room to do what he does best. The driving "Lucifer's Hammer" shows the Virgin Steele intensity returning to shine in its vigorous magnificence, while "Persephone," easily the best one here, amplifies its epic assembly with the presence of powerful riffs pounding down on the profane soil. Having Pursino involved again saves "Nocturnes of Hellfire & Damnation" from becoming a total flop, because his guitar work is an integral part of the Virgin Steele blueprint, gushing with variety and color. The dark "The Plague and The Fire" creepily roasts on doomy riffs working to grind the bleak atmosphere into a fine puree of gloom, another slice that makes its existence here not just substantiated, but vital to the whole direction of the album.

"Nocturnes of Hellfire & Damnation" often fails to juggle this amenity and what the band is attempting, however. Virgin Steele circles back to the directionless, mundane bullsh*t of "The Black Light Bacchanalia" with two watching-paint-dry ballads to end the monstrous opus, racking up a ridiculous thirteen minutes between the pair. "Delirium" is too long for its own good, a filler tune that takes its time to move slowly from one ear to the other, where it then drops to the ground and is never heard from again. I wouldn't mind "We Disappear" had the group shaved off the annoying hard rock riffs-a few extra minutes wouldn't have hurt, either. Speaking of hard rock, remember "Life Among the Ruins" and its awful direction that disappeared from later albums because it was terrible? Imagine it revived for whatever reason for eight minutes and some sizable change, and that's "Demolition Queen" in a nutshell.

It seems DeFeis and crew are almost testing their luck by including "Queen of the Dead" and "Black Sun-Black Mass." These two cuts were originally found on Exorcist's "Nightmare Theatre," the sole album of a short-lived speed metal band featuring none other than David DeFeis and Ed Pursino. As luck would have it, some meddling kids on the internet (metal fans are needlessly observant) quickly pieced together these tunes had been redone from "Nightmare Theatre" to match the Virgin Steele panorama. While heavier than most of their surrounding parts and among the best cuts here, the fact that DeFeis and Pursino are rerecording tracks from 1986 and packaging them into an album twenty years after the fact is needless and misguided. Nice try, guys.

As for Dave, his voice sounds fine, but often his vocals are manipulated by effects, which are too obviously integrated into the album to not make them annoying. They sound especially awful on "Devilhead," with its wonky chorus throwing Dave's voice around like one of those weasel ball toys spiraling around hither and thither. It seems Frank Gilchriest, longtime drummer of the fold, is out of the picture here-a sad revelation, if true, because his percussion added ample magic to the majesty of former grandeurs, and that extra boost is what "Nocturnes of Hellfire & Damnation" profoundly lacks. In summation, this is a spotty affair that tries hard to conjure the flames of yesteryears, only the spells come out mostly half-assed, occasionally with a shade of splendor. Shave off the layers of inessential fat, and this might have passed with a recommendation.

Virgin Steele - Nocturnes of Hellfire & Damnation

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