“Veteran” is a word that gets seriously abused in Heavy Metal reviews, but Virgin Steele pretty much demand it – operating consistently since 1982, David DeFeis (a sort of alternate-universe Good Joey DeMaio) has covered a surprisingly broad ground within his chosen field. From driving Hard Rock-flavoured Heavy Metal, via an excursion into more accessible AOR territory, they progressed into a truly operatic style of Symphonic Power Metal leagues ahead of most of their peers in that style, and in recent years have pursued a more contemplative, darkly-progressive style.
The initial sound of Nocturnes Of Hellfire And Damnation (SPV/Steamhammer), then, is of a sudden, squealing gear-change as they drop back into the kind of bombastic but catchy Heavy Metal most associated with 1985’s Noble Savage (Cobra Records). The meandering song structures and brooding emotional displays of the last two albums are almost entirely gone, as are the multi-layered classical histrionics of the House Of Atreus trilogy – here The Riff is once again king, and the symphonic elements exist to add ostentation to it but never undermine its majesty.
I’m going to be honest, despite the rave reviews it’s receiving from many fans, I was initially a little underwhelmed with Nocturnes, largely because I’ve really been enjoying the direction they took with Visions Of Eden (T&T Records) and The Black Light Bacchanalia (SPV/Steamhammer). The production was a little rough, certainly, and both albums took time to really build up steam, but to me they felt like a genuine, honest exploration of a new direction for the band while building on the past. Nocturnes initially sounds like a retrograde step, but it’s hard to stay disappointed for long once the quality of the song-writing kicks in – DeFeis has gone right back to the basics of his craft here, but kept the lessons he’s learned over the years, making a truly engaging collection of songs that’s both catchy and resonant with the sense of mystery that so much modern Metal is missing. And he still clicks, whistles and squeals like a Heavy Metal Dolphin between verses, which is as charming as it ever was. If the album is longer than it really needs to be… that’s hardly a new problem for the band, but one that the quality of the songs largely counteracts.
Ultimately, exactly how excited you’re going to be about Nocturnes Of Hellfire And Damnation probably depends on how much you’ve been enjoying recent Virgin Steele, but even those disappointed that DeFeis won’t be continuing his journey into symphonic moodiness can’t deny that this is a strong, powerful album of serious Heavy Metal from a band who still stand head-and-shoulders above their peers and the successors alike.