Virgin Steele. What an enigma. One of the progenitors of American power metal, their Guardians of the Flame album from 1983 still stands as one of the milestone releases of the genre. In tandem with guitarist Jack Starr, vocalist/keyboardist/twisted visionary David Defeis looked in those early days to be part of a force ready to take Manowar to the wire for the crown of best American metal band. Sadly, Starr fell foul of DeFeis’ overpowering personality and quit the band for a solo career in 1984. The road has been a rocky one for both parties ever since.

Seven Devils Moonshine is a five-CD box set of material old and new, but sadly the record company have seen fit only to supply reviewers with the new stuff, which was probably a big mistake on their part. Virgin Steele (or more accurately DeFeis himself) have been shipping water artistically for some while now, and the three (new) albums being reviewed here show little hope that this situation can be reversed in the near future. Although not quite as bad as last album Nocturnes of Hellfire and Damnation, first album in the set Ghost Harvest (The Spectral Vintage Sessions) Vintage 1 – Black Wine For Mourning is nevertheless a severe test for the ears for the most part.

The listener has to wait until track seven for anything palatable – and that’s a Manowar/Alice Cooper-pastiching spoken word piece – but the next two tracks, Feral and Justine, at least supply memorable hooks for the ears to latch on to. However even with these two tracks so much is wrong – especially, the horrible, bargain basement production – that it’s something of a wrench to go back for repeated listens. One of the man problems sonically is that DeFeis records his vocals at such a low level of power – almost talking, in fact, as it seems to be the only way he can give his creaking old voice any personality in the studio setting– that everything else in the mix suffers exponentially. Strangely, two rehearsal recordings of Defeis that feature later in the box set – wherein the man, unaccompanied and bereft of bells and whistles – show that the man can still sing up a storm in the right circumstances. The drums are horribly tinny, but that would not be such a problem if the levels of all the instruments didn’t rise and fall constantly like the tide throughout nearly every song. In an age where bedroom recording genius is not a particularly rare thing, this hamfisted approach to production is simply unacceptable.

Princess Amy isn’t a bad song, structurally – Mötley Crüe might have put something like this out back in the Theatre of Pain years – but the cover of the Chris Isaak classic Wicked Game sounds appalling, DeFeis’ annoyingly mannered vocal clashing with pseudo-Gary Numan keyboard washes in a fight to the death that only demoralising mediocrity can win. And, to add insult to injury, the cod-drama of the end section is just lifted straight from Type O Negative.

And that’s just disc one…

Disc Two starts in unfortunate fashion with the ‘piano and vocal’ version of The Evil in Her Eyes; One of the main services a record producer offers to artists is an independent, detached ear. Had a producer been helming the sessions for Ghost Harvest (The Spectral Vintage Sessions) Vintage 2 – Red Wine For Warning, rather than Dave himself, this horrendously self-indulgent tour de farce wouldn’t even have made it to the cutting room floor. It’s shockingly bad stuff.

It’s barely believable that the man who had a hand in tracks like Danger Zone and Guardians of the Flame could think the ‘sleazy’ blues of Feelin’ Alright is what fans of Virgin Steele want to hear in 2018, but there you go. The dog bothering squeals injected into the mix over the solo must have seemed like a good idea to someone at some point, although it’s hard to see who, oh – wait…

Sister Moon is better, if only because Defeis offers a straight-up-and-down rendition of the song, thankfully leaving his arsenal of dog-with-distemper yelps and wails in the studio safely under lock and key. Stripped of pretension, the artist is laid bare. And you know what? It’s an absolute breath of fresh air. The talented tunesmith of the early eighties is back, and it’s great to hear. The take here on George Gershwin’s Summertime is similarly stripped down, and, with a Brian May-styled guitar solo stopping the show midway through, it boosts the listener’s confidence that the worst might now be over for us. Even taking into account the appalling drum sound…

Defeis stays in nostalgic mode for a run through the T Rex fave Rip Off, which again features some nice guitar work from, possibly Edward Pursino (or maybe it’s Joshua Block – no-one is credited on the review copy), and, good though the version is, there’s a definite theory forming in the brain that the covers here are for the most part better than the original material. And that’s never a good thing.

Did I mention covers? Here’s the Virgin Steele take on UFO, which given the complete difference between the two bands, puts VS on very shaky ground indeed. Add to this the fact that the band aren’t undertaking a spirited romp through Doctor Doctor but actually attempting to put their spin on the untouchable Profession of Violence, and the alarm bells are drowning out the song’s opening keyboard gambits. The results aren’t as bad as they might have been – DeFeis doesn’t attempt a Dick Van Dyke-style cockney accent to give gravitas to proceedings, for instance, but, like the Chris Isaak cover, it’s an idea that should probably have stayed in DeFeis’ mind. Bad Company and Alice in Chains are given a good kicking next – the former in the form of a sluggish Rock Steady, the latter on a surprisingly effective Nutshell, wherein DeFeis finally gets the studio trickery to do his bidding properly. The result is the most listenable track on the album so far.

At this point disaster strikes. After a bewildering piano-led dabble with the start of Whitesnake’s Slow and Easy that morphs – quite naturally, in the fevered mind of David DeFeis, obviously – into ZZ Top’s Jesus Just Left Chicago, things head down the gurgler with an alarming rapidity. For a start DeFeis’ inability to say the word ‘Chicago’ properly will drive you mental, as will the barrelhouse piano that strips the original of all it’s dark broodiness; but then, to rub salt into this still raw wound, our hero dives headfirst into a horrific Doors medley. Soul Kitchen is a ludicrous song in it’s own right, Jim Morrison’s barrel-chested bravado a thing of wonder and amusement in equal parts; to hear the song delivered in a fashion that can only be rightfully described as being ‘in the pub style’ is frankly astounding. The fact it was passed fit for release doubly so.

And that, brothers and sisters, was as much as I could take. Thirty two tracks of by turns interesting, disturbing and at times laughable self-indulgence that I hope never to come into contact with again. Disc Three – Gothic Voodoo Anthems – may well be the best record ever released. I’ll never know. And that’s something I’m sure I’ll be able to live with. Virgin Steele, who once promised so much, are now laid to rest in this reviewer’s heart. Vale.

Seven Devils Moonshine will be released by SPV/Steamhammer on November 23rd.