CLASSIC FROM THE CRYPT – MERCYFUL FATE “MELISSA” & “DON’T BREAK THE OATH”

It’s not every day that a classic album comes around for a fancy vinyl reissue. In Classic From The Crypt we highlight important releases being given the special reissue treatment.

In our fourth installment we go back to 1983-84, to a time when many a Metal genre was coming out of an embryonic stage and starting to sprout fins and feet and noses (or suchlike), and to a Danish band from Copenhagen, whose imprint can be heard on everything from Black Metal to Thrash Metal to Power Metal… and that voice! It’s MERCYFUL FATE and their two studie albums of the 80s “Melissa” and “Don’t Break the Oath”.

The world of Metal is one that can require a not insignificant suspension of disbelief. When you get right down to it there is something inherently ridiculous about the strutting around that goes on even in Hard Rock. Whether it’s Robert Plant wailing in his tight blouses or Bon Scott in double denim carrying Angus Young dressed as a schoolboy on his shoulders, or a bare chested Freddie Mercury striking poses in tight white shorts and a cap, there’s plenty of people who’ll baulk at what might seem vulgar or unsophisticated exhibitionism. So now imagine that you’d never seen or listened to QUEEN or AC/DC or LED ZEPPELIN and you were presented with MANOWAR or IRON MAIDEN or JUDAS PRIEST. That’s a lot of leather, screeching and men riding into the night on the back of a horse (or a bat or whatever) that you have to process. When I was a lad there were certain things I considered too preposterous to contemplate. The image of King Diamond, dressed like a Victorian earl, in a black top hat, gurning away with his ghoulish makeup was just not something I could get on board with. It took longer for me to appreciate IRON MAIDEN than it did to embrace PANTERA or SLAYER, but while MANOWAR symbolise for me a doorway into a world of bare chested men (as comfortable holding a broadsword as they are a guitar) and a world of Power Metal that I just can’t get into, you can throw pretty much anything Metal my way and I won’t reject it outright.

This is a point I think is worth making as MERCYFUL FATE in this classic incarnation are totally digestible (as far as their music goes) if you like JUDAS PRIEST for example. I’d even say they have a tendency towards the more melodic Hard Rock of a band like THIN LIZZY. The dual guitars of Hank Shermann and Michael Denner are up there with any great Hard Rock or Heavy Metal band, with a constant stream of memorable riffs and melodies and solos, while the bass playing of Timi Hansen and drumming of Kim Ruzz plays an equally important part. Certainly the band does partake in some of the galloping riffs that IRON MAIDEN excel at, but they have a real ear for melody that I think sometimes positions them more towards Hard Rock than NWOBHM for instance. The final piece of the puzzle is important though because MERCYFUL FATE have/had one of the most distinctive vocalists of any Rock or Metal band in King Diamond. And that may be a great or a terrible thing depending on your perspective.

The road of Hard Rock and Metal has been littered with wailing banshees of vocalists for as long as heavy guitar based music has existed (whether it’s Dio, or Chris Cornell or Mike Halford), but King Diamond is a thing wholly unto himself. It’s notable on both “Melissa” and “Don’t Break The Oath” that while you only get a few seconds in to the opening track of each album before you’re hit with that unmistakable wailing falsetto (some kind of demonic child/ witch/ phantom thing he’s crafted), he’s actually pretty selective with where he uses it. Nonetheless I can understand why it might sound too ridiculous, even for some people who enjoy this kind of hard, guitar driven music. Personally though I happily embrace it. The music, the theatrics and the lyrical concerns of witches, satanic rituals and general occult shenanigans really need to be taken with a pinch of salt, but when the music is this good and the vocal melodies are so memorable why not just enjoy it?

As a Hard Rock/ Heavy Metal album the band’s debut “Melissa” is hard to fault. Every track is crammed full of fantastic, memorable riffs, locked-in, hard-rocking rhythms, a never ending procession of great solos and King Diamond, this bizarre banshee, weaving in and out of the tracks with all these catchy melodies.

Opening track “Evil” grabs you from the get go with the monster riffing, pounding drums and lead guitar work worthy of IRON MAIDEN. And it’s so damned catchy! And they just go from one great, memorable track to the next. “Curse of the Pharaohs” comes straight in on a chugging riff with the masculine swagger of JUDAS PRIEST. The energy is irrepressible and the band is so tight. No second is wasted with every vocal line, guitar lick, bass groove and drum fill interconnecting perfectly. King Diamond doesn’t overuse his signature falsetto, but when it does come it’s such a bizarre but cool feature, like some guitar tone you never heard before.

The pace and quality doesn’t let up with “Into the Coven” and “At the Sound of the Demon Bell”, with each track immediately launching into great locked-in grooves and the preposterously operating, demonic vocals on top. There’s something inherently ridiculous about satanic declarations made to the tune of hard rock, so in a way King Diamond’s overtly weird screeching is a perfect way to deliver it. He’s not trying to sound tough, it’s so strange as to be otherworldly. Of course there are now a million things heavier than this in Metal, but how many are this catchy and memorable?

On “Black Funeral” the band take the most overtly ‘evil’ sounding tone and adding chants of “hail satan” certainly adds to that vibe. This and the epic “Satan’s Fall” seem to be the strongest indicator of how the band would become a huge influence on what would become Black Metal. As the track barrels through one great riff to the next you definitely hear a few riffs that a number of Black Metal bands have polished off and run with. Unlike other Proto-Black Metal pioneers like VENOM or BATHORY or HELLHAMMER though, the musicianship and songcrafting of MERCYFUL FATE always keeps them with one foot in classic Hard Rock with these ghoulish demonic elements in addition.

At this stage it would be kind of redundant to point out how ridiculous the closing title track is, as King Diamond wails over an initially sombre ballad about the eponymous witch. If you’ve been on board with the band this far, it seems churlish to get off now. The band do expertly shift back and forth between these slower passages and hard riffing. What more is there to say? Sometimes you just have to give credit where credit’s due, “Melissa” is an absolute belter of an album.

The band’s second full-length album (and last before a nine year gap) “Don’t Break The Oath” is generally held up in pretty similarly high regard as their debut, I personally think it doesn’t quite reach the same high standard. Given that “Malissa” is a stone cold classic though, there’s no great shame in this record being a slight step down.

Opening track “A Dangerous Meeting” shows the band hadn’t lost their melodic sensibility, while still maintaining a hard-rocking feel. If anything it shows the band as grittier and dirtier than on their debut. The slowed down riff and ominous bells towards the end of the track give a signal that on this release the band would really lean into the occult image and atmospherics.

“Nightmare” is carried on a leering, lurching rhythm, that feels like staggering through a storm. Here and elsewhere on the album, like the closing track “Come To The Sabbath” and especially “Night of the Unborn” you can really appreciate the great bass playing. Steve Harris would be proud. And it’s not just the bass that has a flavour of IRON MAIDEN about it. There are some very Maiden-esque guitar lines peppered through the album.

On the above mentioned “Nightmare” King Diamond broadens his ghoulish vocal horizons with some booming, more guttural moments alongside his falsetto wailing, while on “Desecration of Souls” (surely a key reference point for a generation of budding Black Metal youths with its dark, gritty riffing) he almost takes on a Tom G. Warrior kind of growl. On this track and “The Oath”, with its atmospheric opening of thunder, church organ, bells and a mock satanic mass, you can really hear the band fully embrace a dark, satanic aesthetic. I don’t doubt that Danny Filth was taking a mental note when he listened to the latter track as an impressionable youth.

Once again pushing to absolute limits of digestible ridiculousness, “Gypsy” is hard to criticise when the riffing is so propulsive and catchy, and even catchier the vocal melodies from King Diamond. Add to that the track contains some pretty exceptional guitar soloing. My favourite moment perhaps comes tucked away on closing track “Come To The Sabbath”, which seems to be a procession of one great riff tossed off after another. Right about 3:30 minutes in the track opens out into this haunted Hotel California passage. I don’t know, it just gets me every time.

For sure there are no shortage of memorable riffs and melodies on this album, but sometimes I just find the inherent silliness of it all goes a little bit too far, whereas on “Malissa” I’m carried along the whole way through. Nonetheless as someone who took a long time to get into 80s Heavy Metal (and there’s still plenty of it that I don’t really seek out), I’ve got to say that MERCYFUL FATE fully deserve their iconic status. They are way more than just a Heavy Metal band fronted by a 19th Century Viscount in face paint.

This is indeed a great time to discover or revisit the band as both these albums (as well as their “Mercyful Fate” EP and the collections “The Beginning” and “Return Of The Vampire”) have all been reissued in a range of different vinyl editions, with King Diamond stating that each one is taken from the original masters. So if you’re someone like me that likes to listen to classic albums as they were originally intended you won’t be disappointed. Go to the band’s website to see all the versions available here. Tom Boatman

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