Generally when you listen to a band you have expectations to what you’re about to hear, such as a standard song structure, normal instrumentation, generic lyrics, and for it to pertain to no more than a couple genres. Mainstream music follows this to the tee, even though recently some bands are appalling fans when using influences outside of rock, pop, or blues, and the inflation of stagnation is a staggering behemoth. This is slowly pertaining to the metal scene as well unfortunately. Even the underground scene is following certain trends that are beginning to lack anything interesting, and a lot of stuff just sounds processed and lacks humanity, as if bands just want to get popular by following the flavor of the week. Thankfully, the underground always has a few tricks up its sleeve, and this is where bands like Virgin Black come in, though it is safe to say that Virgin Black is not like other bands, in any circumstance.
Hailing from Australia, Virgin Black illustrates the only way to approach the writing process, and that is by fully immersing yourself into every section and every note so that you get across exactly how you feel, and in doing so you can produce the most unrefined and powerful sounds you can muster. Just one listen through this record should be enough to make it evident how much attention they pay to not only the structures of the songs but the structure and flow of the album. They refuse boundaries to include any influence that fits a certain section, hence the mix of Gregorian, classical, black metal, electronica, acoustics, doom, and opera, sometimes all at once. There are similar bands that have produced noteworthy concoctions of these influences, but the way Virgin Black executes them is truly unique.
Rowan London and Samantha Escarbe are at the helm of the compositions and lyrics, Rowan primarily being the vocalist/keyboardist while Samantha handles guitars. Rowan’s vocals vary from high-ranged opera to Gregorian chants to black metal rasps to deep death metal vocals, and he somehow does all very well with no training. His operatic vocals are his main tool, yet at times he wavers off-key during really high notes. However, during a chat with him after a concert he told me he has been studying under a professional opera teacher, so the problem has been mended. Samantha also has no training, but manages to pull off very soulful solos completely absent of wankery. Her and Rowan’s parts flow together seamlessly so it is sometimes hard to differentiate between each other’s writing.
There cannot be enough emphasis on the lack of repetition or the graceful transitions throughout the album. If you’re only slightly paying attention, the first five tracks sound like one giant song. If you then pay more attention and re-listen to said tracks, you realize that they might as well be one giant song because of how perfectly placed they are amongst each other, let alone the handful of recurring passages that are continuously built upon. There’s a certain dark, melancholic, and infuriating aura amidst them that cannot be replicated. While the second half of the album’s songs is unrelated musically, they still do not falter from the mentality of that aura, but express it in a completely new way than the first half. For example, Museum of Iscariot is seven minutes of acoustic guitar, singing, and solos in between the verses. The melancholy comes from the solos, the rage comes from the lyrics (if you pay attention), and the darkness comes from the mixture of it all and the theme the song enacts. Then you have I Sleep With The Emperor, possibly the strangest song on the record, that ranges from a capella opera that bursts into the heaviest moment on here with dual death vocals. The lyrics are a unique part of the band, dealing with misery, religion, and the absence of hope, but even though they are very cryptically personal at parts and vital to the band, going in depth into how involved they are with said topics would take pages. You just need to know that the tones are almost traditional, and the vocals make you wonder about their meanings because of the amount of emotional honesty Rowan puts into them.
Virgin Black are their own entity. The passion they put behind their eclectic methods and ideas is unmatched, and the professionalism of the band should be recognized. This is certainly one of the most impressive debuts I’ve ever heard, and even more respectable knowing it was independently released, meaning they put all their money into this. They transcend all stereotypes you could place on any band that wears corpse paint, and there seems to be no way they can be related to any metal band aside from the dedication. This is not recommended for people looking for something exciting and catchy or a mindless heaviness, but rather a deep, darkly colorful illustration of gothic and romantic influence with preservation, tension, and intensity to match the shadows seeping through the cracks in your walls.