This entry in the “P.J.’s Ultimate Playlist” series will differ from the previous entries. With those entries, I focused on single songs that resonated with me personally. With the band we will be discussing today, however, I can’t simply choose just one song because they are just that good! This is especially true of what I and many of the other lucky few that have gotten to experience this criminally underrated band consider to be their magnum opus: a trilogy of albums released throughout the mid-nineties exploring humanity’s relationship to the divine with over 40+ tracks of symphonic heavy metal delight.
But to understand what makes this album trilogy so unique, one must understand the band behind it. One of the unsung pioneers of the American power metal alongside Manowar, Helstar, Jag Panzer, and Riot, this group ground away in the metal underground of Long Island throughout the eighties. They recorded four studio albums and fought through lineup changes and folding record labels before finally finding their proper niche with their charismatic and eccentric frontman’s “barbarian romantic” vision in the Marriage trilogy. But how did the band get there in the first place?
Virgin Steele’s story began in June 1981 when guitarist Jack Starr and drummer Joey Ayvazian sent out auditions for a lead singer to help them start a heavy metal band. David DeFeis, a recent graduate of S.U.N.Y. Stony Brook, answered the ad with his friend, bass player Joe O’Reilly.
DeFeis had grown up with an artistic family; his father owned a Shakspearian theater company, and his sister was an opera singer. DeFeis himself had grown up listening to classical music throughout his childhood and was introduced to rock through the band Stalk, featuring his older brother and sister on keyboards and vocals, respectively. He even started his own band, Phoenix, when he was only eleven. DeFeis and O’Reilly auditioned successfully, even though Starr’s group already had a bass player named Kelly Nickels. Nickels was fired, as the band judged him to have inferior skills to O’Reilly’s, and subsequently moved to Los Angeles and, after honing his craft, found success with the band L.A. Guns.
The band recorded their self-titled debut album in only a week that December and self-released it the following April. They had previously released the song “Children of the Storm” on the Shrapnel Records compilation U.S. Metal Vol. II, which was positively received by fellow up-and-coming metal bands Metallica and Queensryche. Virgin Steele and Metallica even became labelmates when the British company Music for Nations signed them, alongside bands like W.A.S.P., Manowar, and Mercyful Fate.
After the release of their second album, Guardians of the Flame, in June of 1983, Starr left the band due to creative differences with DeFeis. Starr preferred straightforward anthems, while DeFeis wanted to do more elaborate and classically inspired compositions. The former would form the band Burning Starr, while the latter brought on new guitarist Edward Pursino, who he had known since forming a Black Sabbath cover band named Mountain Ash in high school.
This lineup recorded two albums that would later be regarded as underground classics: Noble Savage, released in 1985, and Age of Consent, released in 1988. Despite joining bands like Manowar and Black Sabbath on tour, the band went into a semi-hiatus for a few years as music industry bullshit started wearing them down. DeFeis claims that “our manager made a royal mess of our career, both financially and spiritually. With other legal problems rearing their ugly heads, we didn’t record another album until ’92.” By that time, Joe O’Reilly had become disillusioned and quit the music industry altogether.
The band subsequently recruited Teddy Cook (of Dio and Great White fame) and Rob DeMartino (who had previously formed a blues-rock group called Smokestack Lightning alongside DeFeis and Starr) to record the bass track for their 1992 album Life Among the Ruins.
The album was somewhat poorly received by fans at the time, as it had ditched the epic power metal leanings of the band’s eighties output in favor of a bluesy glam metal sound heavily inspired by Whitesnake. However, while touring in Europe in support of the album, DeFeis was seized by a sudden wave of creativity that led him to produce the trilogy of albums that would secure Virgin Steele’s cult status as underground metal legends.
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
I should probably start by saying that The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is not based on the 1793 book of the same name by William Blake, despite what Wikipedia might tell you. DeFeis has insisted in several interviews (including this one) that he was unaware of any book by that name when he recorded Part I. He was more familiar with Blake’s collection of poems titled Songs of Innocence and Experience. It was drummer Frank Gilchriest who made the connection when he joined in the middle of recording the second album (Joey Avayzian had retired from the music industry to pursue a career as an inventor).
When asked in the same interview why the albums seem to have the same themes as the book despite not being influenced by it at all, DeFeis had this to say:
I was thinking of opposites. I just wanted to have this reconcilliation of opposites, and I thought, “What’s the most obvious thing you can try and have a union of?” And it was Heaven and Hell, and that’s where the title came from.David Defeis, Interview with Mark Diggins for The Rockpile, June 30th, 2014
Opposites are also a major theme in Blake’s Marriage. As Blake famously wrote:
Without contraries there is no progression. Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate, are necessary to human existence. From these contraries spring what religions call good and evil. Good is the passive that obeys reason. Evil is the active springing from energy. Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.
Blake was saying that the binary sense of morality that humans had developed (and had been enforced by organized religion) was stifling their growth. They needed to recognize that human nature should not be restrained to please uncaring institutions and that divinity and humanity are not separate from one another.
A similar story can be perceived throughout DeFeis’ Marriage. The story of the album trilogy revolves around Endymion and Emalaith, two messianic figures struggling against a pantheon of uncaring and capricious deities and the earthly authorities who serve them. As David puts it in this interview, the names Endymion and Emalaith came from “a name that conjures up images of forests, pagans, beauty, ruins, and desolation, along with a yearning for a love beyond the grave.” While Emalaith appears to be entirely DeFeis’ own creation, he almost certainly took the name Endymion from a figure in Greek mythology who bore fifty sons to Selene, the goddess of the moon, who later put him into an eternal sleep as she couldn’t bear the thought of him dying.
DeFeis’ Endymion, on the other hand, is placed in a story that plays out like a cross between Conan the Barbarian and Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Admittedly, a lot of the following story I perceived comes from my own interpretations, as Invictus is the only album in the trilogy that actually tells a linear narrative, according to Dave. Even so, I think you could make a case that the trilogy as a whole does tell a cohesive story.
Part I (released in December of 1994) begins with Endymion and Emalaith running from the secret police of their theocratic government in the opening track, “I Will Come For You.”
Once we had beauty, Our sun blazed in passion! We lived a life! Far from the reaching Of close-minded preaching, We lived and died! Now all in darkness, we wait for the end, Hunted by men of the cloth. Murder and torture, they rape and they slaughter, Claiming the way of the cross!
As Endymion wanders the postapocalyptic landscape that the theocracy has left in its wake, he vows, “under tortured skies, from a land with no sun, I will come for you!” As he searches for where they are keeping Emalaith prisoner, Endymion is harassed by visions telling him that he is either destined to destroy the gods’ despotic rule over the Earth or that he is doomed to die an insignificant death in the wasteland.
Endymion is finally tracked down and captured by the theocracy. Unbeknownst to them, though, they end up imprisoning him at the same facility where Emalaith is being held. Taking advantage of one of his visions, Endymion plans their escape around the outbreak of the final apocalyptic battle (most likely Ragnarok, given the numerous references to Norse mythology in Part II) between the gods, depicted in the song “Blood of the Saints”:
London is mine, New York and Paris shall fall! One ring to rule in darkness to bind them all! Come to me now, a moth to the flame, Burning your eyes as you stare With the Blood of the Saints!
But as the two lovers make their escape amidst the chaos, giggling excitedly about a “Life Among the Ruins,” Emalaith is killed, likely by the gods, in order to drive Endymion into despair. Instead, he declares himself the new messiah and swears vengeance on all who ruined the world in the name of their vicious gods.
Part II (released in December of 1995) sees the battle of Ragnarok raging on Earth as the various gods fight for their privilege to do with humanity as they please. Endymion gathers followers to help him in his crusade while simultaneously going on a journey in the spiritual realms to learn the secrets of the gods to fight them better. He befriends the god Prometheus, tortured by the gods who now fight the battle of Ragnarok for showing kindness to man, and even finds a way to communicate with Emalaith from beyond the grave. Along the way, he makes the critical discovery that good and evil are not as binary of a concept as he thought they were and declares open war on the gods and all who aid them.
The final album, Invictus (released on April 15, 1998), follows Endymion and his army as they battle for their right to live as they choose in a world without gods. Along the way, the gods send numerous challenges to trip Endymion up, including their own army of human loyalists led by a new antagonist called the Red Queen and a magical artifact called the Sword of the Gods that tempts Endymion into using his newfound powers for evil. They even manage to kill Endymion at one point and send him to Purgatory. The powers he gained during his spiritual journeys manage to resurrect him, however, and he leads his army over deserts and frozen tundras to the home of the gods. Endymion slays the guardian of the Red Queen, despite it being “seven rivers wide” (yikes), and finally destroys the gods once and for all, proclaiming to his followers with his dying breath, “I crown us kings!”
My Twelve Favorite Tracks from the Marriage Trilogy (In No Particular Order)
Before I talk about my favorite tracks from the trilogy, I should probably elaborate on what David DeFeis is talking about when he refers to his music as “barbarian romanticism.” DeFeis himself describes it this way in the official biography on the band’s website:
From a whisper to a scream; barbaric, romantic, bombastic, yet subtle; grandiose, yet earthly. A call, a shout, an invocation to freedom and the continual awakening to the awareness that every moment of life is lived to it’s fullest potential. It is a force, a sacred quest which drives Virgin Steele on!!!David DeFeis, “Biography” on The Official Virgin Steele Homepage
Put more simply, it is a form of symphonic power metal that aims for an emotionally complex sound, with lyrics that are equal parts based on myth and legend (mainly Greek, Norse, Abrahamic, and Mesopotamian) as well as DeFeis’ own real-life experiences. Compare this to fellow New York power metallers Manowar, whose music focuses more on the over-the-top manliness inherent to sword and sorcery type fantasy. I’m not saying that makes them bad in any way; I’m just saying that it kind of makes me scratch my head when Virgin Steele is referred to as “the poor man’s Manowar.”
To explain what I mean, let us briefly examine twelve songs from the trilogy and see what makes them tick:
1. I Will Come for You
Starting Part I with a bang, this symphonic metal masterpiece is a prime example of DeFeis’ barbarian romantic style. Starting almost immediately with only a short instrumental intro, DeFeis immediately starts off his tale of gods and heroes, perfectly showing off the mythological and personal nature of his lyrics:
Whose god is stronger? Who's made by his hand? Primitive blood stains the sand! Murder and torture; they're raping your daughter, Drunk with the blood of the Lamb!
It also demonstrates the band’s softer side about three minutes in as the band slows down to introduce the beautiful “Marriage of Heaven and Hell Theme” that recurs throughout the trilogy, most notably in the same-titled tracks that occur at the end of all three albums.
2. Trail of Tears
This track from the exact midpoint of the album is mainly a mid-paced groove with a faster middle section, featuring DeFeis lecturing an authority figure about the choices they’ve made, the numerous people that have suffered because of it, and how their choices may come back to haunt them someday.
Ask and you won't be forgiven. This is a blessing in disguise. All of your choices are spoken. You've killed the child in my eyes. I'm gonna see you burn! When in some dark distant future, You'll meet my presence in a song. You'll punch the walls in frustration. Can you hear my voice and say I'm wrong? I'm gonna see you burn!
Indeed, with a title like “Trail of Tears,” it’s hard for me not to think that this might be DeFeis’ commentary on America’s treatment of its indigenous population, including by forcing their religion on them. The “you killed the child in my eyes” line especially reminds me of the boarding schools where Native children were abused in the name of “killing the Indian to save the man.”
3. I Wake Up Screaming
This song takes more of a traditional speed metal type of sound. It features DeFeis angrily ranting at the powers that rule over his society, accusing them of trying to strip him of his individuality and make him conform to a broken system run by people who don’t care about those lower than them in the social hierarchy (“All your promises are broken/I think you just want to bury me!”). I can definitely relate to the title of this song in an age when multiple system-wide failures are rapidly closing in on our current society, and our political leaders seem either unwilling or unable to try and stop it.
4. Life Among the Ruins
Another traditional metal track with some symphonic touches, this song reminds us to look for the beauty in life even when everything seems to be falling apart around us, for it is often that hidden beauty that inspires us to push onward even when everything seems to be going wrong.
You are a rose! You are a blade! I'm down on my knees in the dark in the fiery reign! You are a rose! You are a blade! I challenge you to love my bride of pain!
5. Crown of Glory (Unscarred)
I'll never die while the light races over my head; I can see where we are. Why must you cry for the life you are leaving behind? Crown of glory unscarred!
The second track from Part II reads almost like the band’s mission statement. It calls out to the listener to get up and make something of themselves and to stand up against authority figures, both in this world and the next, who would prevent them from doing so. It also provides this verse, which one could consider the trilogy’s thesis statement:
What was forbidden now is open, The golden apples of the sun. All that's alive consider holy! Holy! Holy! Body and soul are reconciled. And Heaven and Hell, remember their love, And every road leads me to you! To truth!
Indeed, this might be one of my favorite songs of any genre. It just fills me with a desire to run out into the world to right all the wrongs and knock the daylights out of anyone who tries to stop me.
6. Prometheus (The Fallen One)
It’s hardly a surprise that DeFeis decided to include the story of mythology’s most famous martyr (besides Jesus) in his story about divine injustice. It’s also probably not a surprise that it is an epic track full of galloping guitar riffs, symphonic flourishes, and soaring vocals (including an impossibly high shriek in the atmospheric Middle Eastern-influenced intro that almost puts Rob Halford to shame). However, the epicness of this track still pales in comparison to the one that comes right after it.
This track is often considered one of Virgin Steele’s best. It is often considered the one best representative of DeFeis’ barbaric-romantic vision, alongside “The Burning of Rome (Cry for Pompeii)” and “Perfect Mansions (Mountains of the Sun)” (both from Age of Consent). It goes through several different musical shifts throughout its ten-minute runtime. It starts with a soft, keyboard-heavy intro with crooning vocals before launching into a more direct heavy metal assault. This song goes harder than any other song on the album in terms of symphonic elements, even quoting from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor at one point. It definitely succeeds in DeFeis’ goal of portraying “a love from beyond the grave.”
8. Victory Is Mine
The penultimate track from the album is more of a straightforward metal anthem celebrating the spirit of revolutionary fervor (“I will run to the hills where you hide/Seeking vengeance for all of my kind!”). It boasts one of Ed Pursino’s best riffs, and Joey Avayzian’s performance on drums was a great note on which to end his tenure with the band. It also dramatically foreshadows the change in tone as the story moves into its third and final act.
The title track on the third and final album of the trilogy immediately shows us that things will be different this time around. The production is much gritter than the often soaring acoustics of the previous two albums, possibly to signal that we’ve reached the ugly part of the story, where the final battle to free humanity from their uncaring gods has commenced. Even so, the epic factor has not diminished. Pursino’s riffs are still excellent, and DeFeis’ lyrics have grown extra-defiant as his character Endymion confronts God Himself and calls him out for his mistreatment of humanity. It brilliantly sets the tone for the rest of the album.
10. Mind, Body, Spirit
This song plays out like a heavier version of the title track of Noble Savage. In addition to both tracks being seven-and-a-half minutes long, they both feature pounding metal for the first four-and-a-half minutes and an extended symphonic outro where the guitars are almost nonexistent. The main difference between the two tracks is that M.B.S. is far less melodic, taking more inspiration from thrash metal in its main riff. Despite that, it’s still a worthy song and well worth a listen.
This is another candidate for one of my favorite songs of all time, though not so much for Pursino’s guitar work or DeFeis’ snarling vocals. It’s mainly due to the lyrics, which, appropriately enough, consist of some of the most uncompromising “Fuck authority”-type lyrics I’ve ever heard in a song this side of Rage Against the Machine. I especially love this little speech Dave gives as the band drops out in the middle of the song to let him have the stage to himself:
Now turn to face me, great despot enshrined. The wealth of our years of injustice has purchased this night. I take your power! I slay your clan! Clouds and furies now fly in the face of despite. I take your power! I look in your eyes! Watch! See! See how a god... DIIIIEEEES!!!
12. Veni, Vidi, Vici
Closing out the trilogy is the longest song on all three albums, running at a total of 10:44. It is the culmination of all of Endymion’s struggles as he finally leads his army into the home of the gods and banishes them from the mortal realm once and for all. It features another contender for one of Ed Pursino’s best riffs and a truly epic vocal performance from Dave, including his beautiful falsetto cry of “I crown us kings” at the end. It’s a true masterpiece of power metal magic.
After the Marriage
DeFeis didn’t slow down his rock opera productions one bit after completing the trilogy. He immediately followed it up in 1999 and 2000 with The House of Atreus, a two-part album series based on The Orestia, a trilogy of Greek plays written by Aeschylus in the 5th century B.C.E. The story follows the trials endured by King Agamemnon’s family in the aftermath of the Trojan War, including Agamemnon’s murder at the hands of Queen Clytemnestra, her murder at the hands of their son Orestes, and Orestes’ subsequent torment by the Erinyes (aka Furies) and trial. The two albums combined include a total of almost three hours’ worth of music, yet it never gets boring once. Particular highlights include the epic opening track “Kingdom of the Fearless (The Destruction of Troy),” the ominous “Through the Ring of Fire,” the pounding swagger of “Agony and Shame,” the majestic “Fire of Ecstasy” and “Flames of Thy Power (From Blood They Rise),” and the epic finale “Resurrection Day.”
The next proper studio album didn’t come out until September 2006. The band did release two albums called The Book of Burning and Hymns to Victory in 2001 to celebrate their 20th anniversary, but those were simply compilations (albeit the former featuring re-recorded older tracks and rarities). The next proper studio album was titled Visions of Eden and was another mythological rock opera, this time centering on the story of Lilith, Adam’s first wife. She turns out to be too independent for Adam’s liking, so he trades her for the more submissive Eve. Lilith is banished and tormented by the Demiurge who created her for messing with his divine vision, eventually creating the demonic spirit of vengeance we are all familiar with today.
This album has divided Virgin Steele fans thanks to the obvious shift in the band’s sound, which shifted to a much darker and low-register tone, perhaps owing to their new guitarist, Josh Block, preferring seven-string guitars. Not helping matters was that the songs have become much longer. None are under five minutes, and the longest one (“Adorned with the Rising Cobra”) lasts just shy of ten. Personally, I enjoy this album, even if it somewhat overstays its welcome as its 79-minute runtime draws to a close. I like to imagine it as a prequel of sorts to the Marriage trilogy, with the Demiurge of this story eventually being the main villain of Endymion’s tale. Highlight tracks include “Immortal I Stand (The Birth of Adam),” “The Ineffable Name,” “Angel of Death,” “God Above God,” and “Visions of Eden.”
Sadly, the band would only double down on the worse aspects of Visions… as the years went on. Their next album, 2010’s The Black Light Bacchanalia, made it clear that the band was starting to lose itself in DeFeis’ growing artistic insanity. His vocal choices are particularly bizarre; most of the time, he sticks to his lower range, only occasionally leaping out of a soft croon to deliver a sudden castrato wail like at the beginning of “Prometheus.” Not to mention the bloated track lengths continue here. Much like Visions…, there are eleven songs covering almost eighty minutes, only two lasting less than five minutes and the rest lasting between six and eleven (!) minutes. There are some good tracks here (“By the Hammer of Zeus (And the Wrecking Ball of Thor),” “Pagan Heart,” and “In a Dream of Fire”), but they get less frequent as the album goes on.
Things didn’t get much better with the next album, 2015’s Nocturnes of Fire and Damnation. First of all, longtime drummer Frank Gilchriest is nowhere to be seen, having apparently been replaced by a drum machine. Second, Dave overcompensated for his lackluster delivery on the Bacchanalia by leaping all over the place on his vocal range, packing his vocal tracks to the brim with piercing shrieks. This gets annoying, especially since the vocals are mixed way too high in the final tracks, and he sounds like a parody of himself most of the time. Ed and Josh do their best with good guitar material, but Dave’s overly bombastic performance ultimately drags them down. The only song on the album that manages to make it out with some dignity intact is “Persephone,” thanks to David at least managing to rein himself in a bit more. “Lucifer’s Hammer” almost reaches its level until Dave’s overly expressive vocals pull it down. So yeah, this album wasn’t much to write home about.
The band also released a five-album box set in 2018 called Seven Devils Moonshine. Granted, two of said albums are just reissues of Hymns to Victory and Book of Burning, but I haven’t had the courage to listen to anything on the other three albums since they just seem to confirm that David DeFeis is continuing to lose himself in his own ego.
So yeah, it kind of ended on a downer note there. But that’s not to say the band isn’t worth listening to. It’s only because of their run of albums from Marriage Part I to Visions of Eden being so good that their run of albums from the last fifteen or so years feels so disappointing. Maybe the band has its own Death Magnetic waiting in the wings for some future date, but that seems increasingly unlikely at this point.
But still, even if the band’s descent into mediocrity continues, David DeFeis can rest assured that he still gave The Marriage of Heaven and Hell trilogy to the few like myself who have been lucky enough to witness its majesty firsthand, lighting a fire in our bellies to create our own works of art and fight back against the authority figures in our life who clearly care nothing for our well-being. So from me to you, Dave, from the bottom of my heart: Thank you, and may you have long days and pleasant nights conducting your symphony of Steele.