Visions of Eden
Interview by Todd K Smith
In the annals of heavy metal few stand the test of time like Virgin Steele. Added to the list alongside Motörhead, Manowar and Metallica, the Long Island quartet are just as true to their music as their name attests. Forged from the fires of the romantic school of classical music (rather than the Baroque, as many of their contemporaries) Virgin Steele creates elaborate orchestral narratives with engaging power and finesse. They were formed in the fall of 1981 when classically trained vocalist/keyboardist David DeFeis met guitar wizard Jack Starr on the New York club circuit. Since their inception DeFeis has carried the banner through several line up changes, 13 records, 3 operas and numerous world tours.
Today the band consists of David DeFeis (vocals, keyboards, guitar, bass, orchestration), Edward Pursino (guitar) Josh Block (guitar) and Frank Gilchriest (drums), their strongest and most durable lineup to date. Collectively they have recently released another grand opus under the title of Visions of Eden ~ The Lilith Project, A Barbaric, Romantic Movie Of The Mind. DeFeis has once again dipped his pen into a swirling vile of pagan ink to script a tale of myth and intrigue. Though the record is sewn together with a complex story line, individual songs can be lifted to stand on their own. Several characters interact within the lyrics as the music holds the listener spellbound in its orchestral web.
From the very beginning exposition of “Immortal I Stand” through the Maiden-like “Black Light On Black” and “Bone Dust” to the acoustic “When Dusk Falls” Virgin Steele craft a cinematic display that calls back to their greatest achievement in Nobel Savage. Guitarist Edward Pursino compliments DeFeis cathedral keyboards with shear metal force, lethal solos and a blinding array of six-string theatrics. His pulsating riffs in “Adored With The Rising Cobra” and “The Ineffable Name” defend the band’s artistic foray into classic music with true sonic agility. DeFreis tenor wails with emotion moving from a boisterous call-to-arms to an eerie, ghost-like whisper. The plot thickens as drums and bass find the fields of “Angel of Death” and “Childslayer” the perfect battleground for their clashing of thunder and steel.
We at The Cutting Edge were honored to speak to Mr. DeFeis through email. Below is the transcript of our discussion with a detailed account of the records creation, its stunning cover and symphonic excellence. A special thanks to Mark at the VS home office and David DeFeis.
The Cutting Edge: This is the first ‘real’ VS release since The House of Atreus series. When we last spoke (in our interview in 2002) you were considering moving away from the concept element and delivering a straight up “kick ass” record without commitment to a plot line. However, with Visions of Eden we’re back in with yet another series. What caused the shift?
DeFeis: We actually did do that with the Book Of Burning album. Inside that CD, along with the various re-recorded things we did, was also an albums length of 8 new straight ahead tracks. So we felt that we had somewhat accomplished that mission and could now move on. The new album Visions Of Eden, while yes it is conceptual, was also designed to be able to be played and understood as separate, individual tracks. I had received the opportunity to take another work to the theatrical stage in Germany, and so…I embarked on a lengthy writing campaign and the songs found on the new album are some of the results of that effort. Hence the return to matters conceptual. I actually composed well over 60 pieces of music, and I had wanted the new album to be a box set or a double CD set.
TCE: The band lineup has remained consistent the last few years, which proves stability in the VS camp. How have things changed for the band in the last five years?
DeFeis: Yes, this is the most stable line up in VS History. We have gotten closer as friends and musical partners. Everyone is very respectful of each other, and is also an admirer and fan, if you will, of the next guy. We have spent many days and nights together rehearsing and performing, so we have an understanding of each others habits, likes and dislikes, etc., and we have achieved a fine and noble chemistry over the years that really works.
Onstage the Group is extremely focused, ferocious, fearless and wild. It is a law unto itself, and quite unlike anything else that I have experienced out there. It is very special. The band is very, very strong. Edward Pursino is an amazing guitarist, who always delivers, and is always ready to go forth and spread the sound of steele! Frank Gilchriest is a master drummer, who is very much at home onstage and in the studio. He is a real drummers drummer, and a very gracious human being. Josh Block our bass player, is a very talented guy, with an excellent ear, and a very positive outlook on life, and music.
The musical set that we have constructed over these past few years is over the top, barbaric, symphonic, romantic, brutal and beautiful! We have been performing a show that runs over 3 hours now, where we try to incorporate tracks from a wide selection of our history. We perform the songs as people will remember them of course, but we also have spontaneity and improvisation in the concert experience. We are not slaves to the recorded work. We will change things around here and there, and leave in room for the mood of the night and the moment.
In addition we all get to stretch out a bit. There are guitar and vocal solo moments; also Frank always does a drum solo, which is always unbelievable. Josh will then do a solo turn. It is all structured quite nicely. Life is ever changing, so whatever I personally have gone through gets filtered into the music. During the past 5 years I have seen some of the best and the worst moments of my life.
TCE: Do you considerer yourself to be one of the true pioneer of classical metal?
DeFeis: I just do what I do. I don’t think of myself that way, but perhaps it would be safe to say that. We have been exploring that genre for years, experimenting and refining what we believe to be the key ingredients in that style. We are one of the few bands that began exploring that terrain early on. Our take on the classical thing comes more from the romantic school of music. It comes more from people like Chopin, Debussy, Verdi, Liszt and Wagner, while many of our contemporaries draw their influences more from the Baroque movement.
TCE: Your influence is heard in a number of power-metal / classical-metal bands coming out of Europe. How do you feel about being an icon? Are there bands you personally mentor?
DeFeis: If so then that is great to hear. Are we icons? Again…if so well…then that is great! I am glad to hear it. I don’t personally mentor anyone…I have a hard enough time mentoring myself! I am however always approachable, and I do from time to time receive questions from musicians, and samples of their work to check out, so I do get involved on that level now and then.
TCE: Most bands only do one “concept” record their entire career, Virgin Steele actually approaches every record as a concept piece. Does that have more to do with “classic” compositions or are you attempting to elevate each recording to epic proportions?
DeFeis: I think that it is more from wanting to explore every possible facet of an idea and trying to unify the whole work. Even albums like Noble Savage, or Age Of Consent had a concept to them. They are not like a book. They don’t have a narrative or plot line per se, but they do have a thread that binds the tracks together. For example Age Of Consent largely deals with youth, aging and death, and those themes manifest themselves throughout the album and tie together all the separate tracks. From working like that I easily slipped into the larger full on concept form. My influences from classical music, the theater and of course metal all conspire to push me in that direction. I love over the top, bombastic music that takes you on an amazing journey, musically, emotionally and spiritually.
TCE: Listening to Visions of Eden I’m drawn to ask, why write about mythology, themes from Greek tragedies and/or overtly cinematic realms?
DeFeis: I love the timelessness of those myths, and I love how they are so relevant today. I use them as a jumping off point for what I wish to express about today’s situations. I am not interested in giving a history lesson. All my lyrics are ultimately about modern day life, especially this new album. Contrary to what the title might suggest, this album “Visions Of Eden” is not about happiness, peace, contentment or eternal tranquility…it is the opposite. It is about disorder, strife, struggle, dominance, and the annihilation of a culture, a way of life, and the violation & annihilation of a human being.
It is a work based on the destruction of Paganism, Gnosticism and the desecration and eradication of the Goddess principle that once dwelled so freely within Divinity. A massive blow was struck against these early beliefs, by first, the rise of the "Father-God" principle, and second by the development of the "organized" religions. The album concerns Lilith, first wife of Adam, (he of Biblical fame, as in Adam and Eve and the apple, the snake and all that fig leaf and rib propaganda), plus ancient Sumerian myths concerning Lilith’s relationship with Adam, Eve and God. Yes that might sound like ancient history, but however, in actuality, it is really about today…modern times and how we might have arrived here to this strange place we are now in. Everything that happens in the work, takes place inside the mind of a modern day 21st Century woman, as she is being raped.
TCE: Is it exhausting trying to come up with such grand operatic themes?
DeFeis: Composing can be difficult. I often find it hard to start, but then once I actually do, I begin to steam roll more ideas and it goes on and on and I then have the opposite problem…I find it difficult to stop, to turn off that flow of ideas. I draw inspiration from every fiber of my being. I dive deeply into life, and I write about my experiences.
TCE: Would you ever consider writing a modern suspense thriller like Queensryche’s Operation Mindcrime?
DeFeis: Sure that would be interesting. That is a noble album.
TCE: There are times the disc reminds me of Queensryche - more in phrasing not in style. I know they are contemporaries of VS. They too have never given up and still fight the fight. What is you relationship with them now?
DeFeis: Really? I don’t hear that but OK. They are a great band. I have not seen them in many years. We met a few times back in the 80’s. They were always very gracious. I believe it was Chris DeGarmo who introduced me to guacamole!
TCE: Are you still in contact with Manowar? Metallica? Riot? or The Rods?
DeFeis: Not so much. We last saw Manowar at the Gods Of Metal festival in Italy a few years ago. Metallica, I have not seen in eons. The same goes for The Rods. Riot I see more of, as they live near us. Our drummer Frank played on their last album, so we cross paths now and then.
TCE: You’ve been songwriting partners with Ed since Noble Savage. How has your relationship held up over the years and is he one of the magic ingredients that makes the whole thing work?
DeFeis: It has held up quite well. We have never had any major problems over the long history of our friendship. We support each other and have a great musical chemistry that is plainly visible onstage and on the recordings. I enjoy writing with him. We will be doing more composing together in the years ahead I’m sure. I rely on him a great deal onstage. He is always spot on.
TCE: Frank has been with you for ten years now. How has his contribution changed over the years?
DeFeis: Over 10 years actually! Frank has always been great, and he has only gotten better and even more professional over the years. As far as I am concerned he is the best drummer in rock music today.
TCE: Great drum sound in the closing track “Vision of Eden.” As the producer are you a perfectionist for certain sounds?
DeFeis: Thanks very much for saying so. I am more of a perfectionist for capturing emotions properly, and shaping the songs into the way I hear them in my head. I would think that that must of course spill over into how the actual sounds are produced to a certain extent. So yes.
TCE: The cover to Visions of Eden is one of the best covers I ever seen. It goes back to the day when the artwork made a statement about the music it incases. This one defiantly does just that. Can you tell me more about it? Where was the picture taken? How did you choose the photographer? Where did you find such a magnificent (and large) horse?
DeFeis: Thanks for saying so. Sure. The cover shot was taken in a field in East Germany. The photographer Matti, was suggested and introduced to us by our label. I think he is very talented! Again the label also found the horse. My main contact at Sanctuary records, is a woman named Winnie Viol. She rides horses often, and knew the people who had the horse.
It was not at all about putting me specifically on the cover. It was about finding an image that would fit the sound of the music contained within the grooves. I wanted a cover that would look how the songs themselves sound. I felt that I had achieved that effect with The House Of Atreus and Invictus covers, and I wanted to do the same for this new album. And you know...I do hear the sounds contained within when I look at that image on the cover! That cover was really a “happy accident.” I had gone to Germany to do a photo session for the promotion of this album. In the back of my mind was the hope, of possibly getting a cover shot, and we did shoot some things that we thought might be the cover…but…they were definitely not! Anyway, what we were really aiming for was just some good magazine photos.
When I arrived in Germany I was not in the greatest mood or frame of mind. I had just come over straight from a friend of mine’s funeral, so I was not feeling particularly photogenic or inspired to create any kind of visual magic. But I went ahead with the shoot and did my best. Once the proofs came back, and I saw that particular shot I thought…“oh yes, this could be the cover, as it perfectly sums up the music. It has that same ominous black cloud filled sky that I wrote those songs under, I am looking off into the distance searching for those “Visions of Eden.” The horse has that Noble romantic/savage quality, and all sorts of other bits of symbolism can be read into that picture.
The horse who’s name is Nicholas, is looking one way and I am looking in the opposite direction. I am looking for those “Visions,” while I believe that the horse has already found them! The idea of being “One” with nature, the Animal kingdom and everything that is alive in the universe is present. Considering my frame of mind and the circumstances that photo was made under, I think of that cover as making “beauty out of grief”…I was not in a happy space at all. I was grieving for my friend who had just died, and I was very messed up and confused.
Once I returned to the states and I saw the photo I thought to myself…“yes this could be the cover. It has the magic!” I like the fact that it looks like a painting, but it is not…it is completely real. However, I did not at that point say anything to anyone about my thoughts. I simply left the photo on my computer screen. Frank our drummer walked in, saw the photo and said, “Wow, that’s really great! That should be the cover”! Next Edward also said the same thing when he saw it, so…you see they were voicing what I already thought! Total synchronicity! That is how the cover came to be. It was really an accident that worked out well. I think of it as a kind of tribute to my friend who passed away.
TCE: How many different swords do you have in your collection? I imagine you living in a grand castle filled with swords and shields in Long Island. Am I close?
DeFeis: I have about 20 now. I recently added a bow and arrow to my collection. It is not really a castle, although the main room does look like that. It has a huge stone fireplace and ornate wood walls and ceilings, and the property is fairly extensive and secluded. So in a way I suppose.
TCE: If you had not been born in the 20th century, what time and place would you liked to have lived?
DeFeis: Perhaps ancient Greece or Egypt, or maybe ancient Rome or Babylon, or Alexandria during the time of Alexander The Great.
TCE: What did it feel like to have an opera (or several in your case) that you wrote and composed, played before an audience? What is that like to have your vision realized?
DeFeis: The first time I experienced it I thought…incredible! It made me feel that the music could live on long after I turn to dust. Staging those three works were major achievements for me personally.
TCE: Speaking of visions where did the concept for Vision of Eden originate?
DeFeis: I was thinking about human relationships, and why they are so messed up. I thought about all the wars that are currently raging around the planet, and I said to myself, “if one really wants to understand a culture, one should take a look at that culture’s creation myths.” So I looked again at the myth of Adam and Eve, and once again found what a flawed, and screwed up myth it indeed is. It makes women out to be these vile, evil creatures that must be punished for all eternity. I knew from my studies in paganism, that this was not always so.
I knew that there was a time when women enjoyed great power, prestige and honor, and a great goddess was revered. I saw these myths and teachings from the world’s various “organized religions,” for what they really were and are…propaganda, and slander against the original worship of the divine creatress. I want the work to raise questions about the origins of the world’s organized religions. I would love for it to promote open honest discussions about the nature of myth, women, and the debt that organized religion owes to the earlier “pagan” and gnostic faiths, and the meaning behind the myths, rites and laws of these religions.
I chose this story because it is timely and necessary for today. What happened so long ago has had major unfortunate repercussions on us to this very day. Many of our current attitudes were shaped during this time period, especially our attitudes toward women. And…not for the good I must say. The album speaks about the rape of cultures, the rape of a way of life that existed for thousands of years, the rape of the great Goddess, and the rape of a specific 21st Century woman, as I mentioned earlier. It is a tale of the desecration of beauty, honor, freedom, and love itself. It is a tale that cried out to be told.
TCE: You seem extremely well read, any interest in pursuing a PhD in philology or ancient studies? When did this interest first begin?
DeFeis: I enjoy the printed word. That would be quite interesting I’m sure. When I was at the University, I took courses in Archeology and also Anthropology. They were quite fascinating. My interest began with the theater…drama. I was introduced to the theatrical lifestyle and subject matter at a very young age, by my father. He was and still is a director, and producer of plays. He was and still is also an actor. I would see his rehearsals and performances and get further inspired to read the Plays themselves. I discovered Euripides and Aeschylus in this way.
TCE: Was it difficult to write from a female (Lilith) perspective? Any interest in getting other vocalist - such as a female for Lilith, to sing the different characters in the play?
DeFeis: No not really. I threw myself into that mindset and tried to draw from my experiences with women. We did do that in the stage presentation. We had different actors playing all those characters. It was quite an amazing production.
TCE: Even in the context of a multileveled story, heavy metal anthems still rise as key components such as “Immortal I Stand,” “Ineffable Name,” “When Dusk Fell” and the dark “Black Light On Black.” Which comes first - the metal riffs or the lyrics?
DeFeis: Each song is born in a different way. Sometimes it is the music first, be it a chord change, a melody or a riff or whatever, and other times a title or a fragment of lyric or an entire poem will emerge first, and at other times both music and lyrics arrive simultaneously. But after whatever the initial spark is, it is always down to the hard work of developing a song…exploring every possible direction it can go in. I try to maintain the original feeling or emotion that the inspiration gave me, and heighten it throughout the track.
TCE: The guitar sound is essential to VS records. First there was the passionate but inconsistent Jack Starr, now there is the dependable Edward Pursino. When you compose each part are you meticulous with the instrumentation or is their room for spontaneity and improvisation?
DeFeis: I have always been demanding and specific, and I have only gotten more so over the years. However there is always room for spontaneity and improvisation even if something is completely written out. I often change things dramatically at the 11th hour during the recording process, the mixing process, and of course onstage is another situation entirely. I often do a lot more recording as I am mixing. For this album I did fairly elaborate demos of the songs, with me playing all the instruments. The band received them and had a much better idea of what I was looking for.
TCE: “Angel of Death” and “God Above God” are eloquently put together. Is it difficult to switch gears from raw aggression to sweet melodies?
DeFeis: Thanks very much for saying so. I spend a large amount of time thinking about the arrangements, making sure the songs all flow smoothly through all their transitions from the beginning to the end. I think a song, especially long ones must continually build and unfold new ingredients to keep that forward momentum propelling along. It is not so difficult to switch gears. I stop and I adjust my mood to the song at hand, live in that world for awhile and then move on to the next mood and world when I have had enough.
TCE: There are a number of unique sound effects, such as the harpsichord sounding keyboards, tower bells and trumpets. Do you create them in the studio? What do you use to create the different sounds?
DeFeis: All of those kinds of sounds are created by various keyboards. I mainly use Kerzweill gear. On this new album I also used some of the sounds found in the Giga gear.
TCE: Where do you place yourself as a singer?
DeFeis: I like my voice and what it can do. I try to be true to it and take pains to make sure it always functions at its best.
TCE: Are you and Ed still the primary bass players in the band?
DeFeis: On the albums yes. I played all the bass parts on Visions Of Eden. Live Josh Block plays all the bass parts. On the records, Josh plays 7 string guitar and also some guitar solos and guitar harmonies.
TCE: Any plans for a US tour? What would be the set list if you did?
DeFeis: Not at the present time, but I do hope we can arrange something for this album. The Set would consist of a cross section of music from all periods of Virgin Steele history, largely from the Noble Savage album all the way forward through to Visions Of Eden.
Websites: Virgin Steele, Sanctuary Records