Virgin Steele Interview

Steamhammer Records

The latest release from the veteran American heavy/power metal band Virgin Steele is The Passion Of Dionysus. Band founder and frontman David DeFeis fills us in on the new album and many other topics.

Chad Bowar: What led to the extended time between albums?
David DeFeis: It was not eight years between albums. It was 8 years ago that the Nocturnes Of Hellfire & Damnation album was released, but almost five years ago inside the 5 CD Seven Devils Moonshine box set, we actually released three brand new albums along with the two re-issues found in there. Yes, you read that correctly… three brand new albums in the year 2018. But, the facts about those releases have not been realized by everyone. When we did the Seven Devils Moonshine box set, people assumed that because we had included the two re-issues The Book Of Burning and Hymns To Victory that everything else on all the other albums included was all old material, when in truth, we had specifically recorded and included, once again I will say it, three new albums of brand new material.

The three albums that I am referring to are Ghost Harvest (Vintage 1 Black Wine For Mourning), Ghost Harvest (Vintage 2 Red Wine For Warning) and Gothic Voodoo Anthems. I wrote brand new material for those albums, plus we also recorded several covers that I re-wrote and re-arranged. Those works were all newly crafted for inclusion in that box set, but this was generally not understood at the time, which was quite unfortunate.

So to answer your question further, we did those three new albums, plus we made several movie/documentaries. One movie was based on the Seven Devils Moonshine box set in its entirety, one movie was focused on the Gothic Voodoo Anthems album, and one movie was based on the Visions Of Eden album. In addition to all of that we also issued several song video clips, I believe around 11 of them. And last but not least, I was also writing what became The Passion Of Dionysus album, as well as what will be the follow up to that album, and the follow up beyond that. So as you can see, we were not idle during that time period.

How did the songwriting process for The Passion Of Dionysus compare to previous albums?
It started the way it always does, with me at the piano playing and or singing and a spark of inspiration, and then from that point forward the real work of developing a song begins from there. I dive in and explore all the various possibilities of where the music and the lyric can go and it snowballs from there. Sometimes I start with just the music, sometimes I start with just the lyrics and/or a title, and sometimes I start with everything all at once and it expands outward from there.

These methods are the same methods that I have used when writing all my songs such as “Emalaith,” “I Will Come For You” or “A Symphony Of Steele,” “Kingdom Of The Fearless,” “Invictus,” “Immortal I Stand,” “Noble Savage,” etc., all the way through to the new album’s “The Ritual Of Descent” and everything else I have written. It works for me. One thing that was different on this album is that I did prepare a kind of outline. After I had the initial ideas in place, I organized how the action of the story would unfold, made my outline and always had that in mind when arranging the order of the songs.

Is it easier to write songs now because you’ve been doing it so long, or is it more difficult to avoid repeating yourself?
It is a bit of both. I have been fortunate in that I don’t ever get writer’s block. I am always writing so that is a plus, but I am also always aware of not wanting to repeat, to push the boundaries, and break new ground, so that is the challenge and I am always up for that challenge.

What will be your strongest memory of the recording of the album?
The mixing stage. I always spend the most time there, as I want the album to sound the way I hear it in my head, so I will go to great lengths to try to achieve that. That is the part of the process where I go quite insane and can become murderous to be around…

What was the biggest challenge in recording The Passion Of Dionysus?
Again the same answer as the previous question: the mixing, and to push it further, the mastering. I will explore a multitude, and I do mean multitude of options in order to achieve what I am looking for. There is a line in a song that I wrote for the Black Light Bacchanalia called “By The Hammer Of Zeus” where I sing, ”Pain is me and I’m relentless.” That sums up my approach quite nicely.

What about the story of Dionysus inspired you to base this album on it?
I have a long history of interest in Dionysus and in all these dying and resurrecting God-men in general. Also these half human half divine females like Persefone, of whom I wrote a track about on the Nocturnes album. I am intrigued by the ambiguities of Dionysus, plus the element of danger he brings. What Dionysus embodies and what our tale here concerns is an epic struggle to the death between the twin forces of control/restraint and freedom/release, and whether or not there is room in society for the irrational, the wild, the “letting go” aspects of ourselves. Ultimately it concludes that a space or a place for the irrational must be allowed in order for society to exist, function properly and continue to thrive. When one opposes or denies a place for the irrational like King Pentheus does in our tale, then the person, place, thing or society will be ripped apart…exactly like what comes to be the ultimate fate of Pentheus. Science has shown us that even rats need escape from absolute reality!

As I stated, The Passion Of Dionysus album depicts an epic struggle between the twin forces of control/restraint and freedom/release. In addition, it depicts the passion or suffering of the God, his struggles, his great betrayal at the hands of those he trusted, his rage, his frustration, his death and his resurrection, and on another level this Work also portrays and expresses what the God dearly loves or is most “passionate” about. That being said, embedded within this offering lurks another duality; something else is also simultaneously going on…

How did you go about designing the cover art?
I wanted to express the “passion” which means the suffering of Dionysus. In some myths Dionysus is said to have been torn to pieces by his enemies, and in some instances also torn to bits by his most ardent followers. In other myths he was said to have been hung on a “tree,” the tree being the cross. I discuss all this in the synopsis: The cross has been a sacred symbol since the time before the Moon. The four arms of the cross are representative of the four physical elements earth, fire, water and air. The fifth element is spirit, which is tied, bound or nailed to the physical/material first four elements.

A crucified person represents a soul/spirit bound/nailed to the actual physical body. The nails that attach the human to the cross are our human desires, and by symbolically dying we cast aside or shrug off our desires and our baser lower nature and are reborn as the God. No longer “nailed” to the cross of the four elements, we are unfettered, unbound, free. In addition to being torn apart it was also said that Dionysus was hung on the “tree” or in essence a “cross” where he died to his lower nature and was then reborn. The Hierophant of the Mysteries of Dionysus representing the God himself was symbolically “crucified” during these awesome ritual celebrations.

The album is also being released on vinyl. Are you a collector?
I don’t collect as much as I used to, but I do have an extensive vinyl collection.

What are your upcoming tour plans?
We are starting out gradually. We will be in Spain and Crete this summer, and in late autumn/winter we will probably be in Italy and Greece and probably Germany thus far. Those gigs we are in negotiations for as we speak.

With the state of the music industry today, how do you set expectations and goals for a new album?
I do not set any goals nor do I expect anything. I certainly hope people will enjoy the album and thus far it seems like with what we have released via the two singles and what the journalists have been supplied with, thus far all has been quite positively received. I am happy about that.

The album promotion process has changed dramatically since you started. Do you prefer the mystique there used to be around a release pre-social media, or do you like today’s transparency and interaction?
I prefer the mystique. I am not a fan of social media, we use it only in the most basic way. We are not, nor will we ever be that readily accessible. I do not tweet and I do not post and I do not visit those kinds of sites either.

Looking back at Virgin Steele’s catalog, is there an album that you think was overlooked or underrated at the time, but in retrospect has held up really well?
When Visions Of Eden first came out it was overlooked, and then four or five years later it started to get hailed as an undiscovered gem. That also happened with Age Of Consent.

What are some of your non-musical interests and hobbies?
Wine, books, poems, reading, conversations with friends — real conversations face to face in the same room — film, especially horror.

What’s the best thing you’ve binge watched lately?
I am not really a binge watcher, but I did rapidly consume Yellowjackets, a series on Showtime.

What’s currently in your heavy musical rotation?
This week was a bit of Bach, Chopin, the Bowie album The Man Who Sold The World, and actually I came across a disc I have of Virgin Steele live in Budapest, Hungry. That was quite interesting to hear!

Anything else you’d like to mention or promote?
No, I think you asked quite a lot of relevant questions. Thanks so very much for that!

(interview published June 29, 2023)

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