Virgin Steele – The Black Light Bacchanalia
Reviewed by Christopher Foley
By the hammer of Zeus indeed, here we are closing out my rewind on one of metal’s finest products. It might come as a surprise to some of the readers to hear this was my personal album of the year for 2010 – particularly given the wealth of incredible releases to come out then. Whilst I wouldn’t say it was the strongest of the crop, I established an emotional bond with this album, which I think few ever will or want to.
I’ll level with you. The Black Light Bacchanalia isn’t an easy album to appreciate, and on the surface there are plenty of elements which strive to keep it down. Some fans of the band seem to think Virgin Steele began and ended with the superlative “classic five” run, and those fans have expressed much distaste for this release, which has certainly added to Black Light’s poor reputation. If you want to strike up any sort of appreciation with the album, it’s going to be hard going, and I think most importantly, will require a lot of time through repeated listening.
So what’s wrong with it? Most identifiably I’d say it’s the thin production, which manages to trump the preceding Visions Of Eden. The guitar presence in particular struggles to find a prominent place in the mix, as David DeFeis vocals strive to dominate throughout. Speaking of which, if you’ve any prior knowledge of the album, or read other reviews, you’ll see the mob mentality can’t get away with David’s vocals here. Whilst it isn’t too far away from what he was doing on the last album, there’s a definite increase in his whispered vocals, which some have pegged down to diminishing talent. I personally like to think it’s more out of personal choice, DeFeis oft aims to please himself foremost, and in a sense it’s a brave move, as no one sings like this.
Outside of these obviously noticeable factors, the only other element to The Black Light Bacchanalia that I can imagine would be off-putting is the sheer scope of the songs, and the admittedly lengthy run of the album. Of course, this follows in the footsteps of their preceding release, and as such you’ll find a more prominent piano and orchestral presence as opposed to the almighty guitar riff. I do feel that this is a more metallic effort than their prior opus, but the differences in terms of sound alone are marginal.
I guess you’re keen to know what I feel is so good here? Well it’s simple (no we’re not killing the Batman today)- it’s all in the songwriting. To be fair, songwriting is the most important aspect of any album, and Virgin Steele has long since mastered the art of crafting deep, dense numbers which have their hooks coveted like treasure, awaiting any adventurer savvy enough to delve the depths. Whilst I’ve mentioned that on the surface there is a fair bit identifiably wrong with the album, I feel it’s more so to scare off the bubblegum, thrill-a-minute guys who wouldn’t know the peaks and valleys of excellent songwriting if it were to crash through their window. The Black Light Bacchanalia awards the inquisitive listener, and for those of you out there, I beg you come in.
Just about every song here is worthy of note, and whilst thematically there is a fair bit going on, the endgame closes the story told in Visions Of Eden. To those who look to lyrics first, then I’ll say that, as always with Virgin Steele, they’re very well done, if a little indulgent. Like I say, thematically they close out the last album, but there’s also a focus on old Pagan deities, and the general switch from the old to the new religion(s). Some of the songs aren’t all that obvious in their theme and lyrics so really you can take what you want from the experience – I know I have. Even “Eternal Regret”, which is essentially God’s lamentation, can be taken how you like, either way the song absolutely ruins me. Without a doubt one of the more poignant Virgin Steele numbers.
And that’s it really. The album hits me in ways that few acts outside of Virgin Steele can. DeFeis’ oftentimes odd vocal approach serves more as a benefit in my eyes, and awards the music a further degree of affecting texture. Of course, none of this would be possible without the foundation of dramatic piano work, focused guitar playing, and driving rhythms. Whilst I’d have liked more Edward Pursino, he’s still there and puts forth some cool stuff along with his cohort Josh Block; whose presence is the most prominent it has ever been in the band – something I sincerely hope isn’t a sign of things to come. Seriously, keep Pursino upfront, and leave Block handling bass and rhythm.
The Black Light Bacchanalia is a hard album to sell, what with its polarizing effect on people and poor reputation amongst non-die hard (read: fanboy/girl) fans. I surely wouldn’t suggest starting with this one, as it’s best to understand how the band works prior to indulging. What I will say is to give this one a fair chance: don’t go in expecting pugilistic and driving metal, as whilst there are plenty of heavy metal elements throughout, for the most part the band transcends genres with this one. An odd release to say the least, the appeal is without a doubt stilted, and you really have to put the work in for the enjoyment. Those who do, however, will be very well-rewarded with some awe-inspiring songwriting.
I’ll defend this one to the grave.
4.0 // 5