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Open Wide, the Gates of Hell

From the cover of Mercyful Fate's 1984 album Don't Break the Oath

The enigmatic Danes in Mercyful Fate took such a straight-faced, deadly serious approach to its satanic themes that we were unsure whether it was all a big piss-take, or if they really meant it.

During the glory days of metal that was the mid-1980s, I was not a fan of Mercyful Fate. The band's guitar work was incredible, something I gravitated to instantly -- it excelled at the kind of melodic, progressive metal that I loved by other bands like Iron Maiden, Metallica, and Queensryche -- but that creepy little singer of theirs annoyed me to no end. Let's face it: King Diamond is an acquired taste. All gothed up in his Gene Simmons rip-off face paint, with accoutrements such as his cape, pompadour, and mike stand made of human bones, he'd emit low, guttural troll-like growls one second, and emit piercing, falsetto wails that could shatter glass the next. I found King's shtick so pointless, not to mention highly distracting, that I just shook my head in amazement that such strong musicianship could be wasted with a voice like that. And I wasn't the only one, either; Mercyful Fate was the most polarizing metal band at the time, and kids either loved it or despised the hell out of it. By the time those of us who were initially (and foolishly) skeptical of the band's over-the-top music came around years later, they'd long since disbanded, and King Diamond was in the middle of a run as a solo artist. While the music continued in a direction similar to his old band, nothing could match that early work.

Now Slaying

Various Artists, The Realm of Napalm Records (Napalm)

Rating: 8

Record label samplers don't get any better than this. The Austrian label has long been one of the world's finest sources of European metal, from goth (Beseech, Lacrimas Profundere) to Viking (Tyr) to Tolkien (Battlelore) to symphonic (Leaves' Eyes) to folk (Korpiklaani), and this 50-track CD/DVD set runs the gamut, compiling music videos, live performances, and audio tracks from 20 different artists. The label's best kept secret could very well be Wig Wam, a Norwegian Darkness knock-off that would be the stupidest band ever if the songs weren't so ingeniously catchy.

The Esoteric, Subverter (Prosthetic)

Rating: 7

Inspired by the text/audio cut-up experimentation of William S. Burroughs and the traditional literary game "exquisite corpse", the Kansas quintet tries to bring a little originality to hardcore, and is largely successful, offsetting muscular Neurosis passages with touches of gentler melodicism. The arrangements are a bit more linear than the guys claim, but they still do Uncle Bill proud.

God Dethroned, The Toxic Touch (Metal Blade)

Rating: 7

With less emphasis on blastbeats and more on melodic death riffs, the Dutch veterans sound remarkably fresh on their seventh album. The songs are still punishing, but are grounded by a strong sense of black metal melody, best exemplified by such tracks as "On Wings of Pestilence", "The Day You Died", and "Typhoid Mary".

Hammerfall, Threshold (Nuclear Blast)

Rating: 4

The Swedes have long been on autopilot, milking the power metal shtick for all it's worth, but for the first time, the transparency of Hammerfall's music is painfully obvious and the band's charisma no longer makes up for it. They're clutching at straws: anthems sound turgid, sing-alongs sound tired, and the less said about "Howlin' With the 'Pac", the better.

I, Between Two Worlds (Nuclear Blast)

Rating: 8

Featuring members of Immortal, Enslaved, and Sahg, this is one supergroup project that succeeds on every level, balancing black metal with a more straightforward, old school sound. Immortal's Abbath takes the bull by the horns, creating a dominating presence on such tracks as "Warriors" and "Mountains", while the rest of the band delivers a near-perfect combination of brute force and undeniable groove.

When it wasn't fraught with internal strife, Mercyful Fate exuded a decidedly scary vibe that no bands from the era could match. You could easily see through the demonic shtick that other artists attempted: Ozzy Osbourne's approach was cartoonish at best, Iron Maiden dabbled only from a safe distance, and while acts like Slayer, Venom, and Witchfynde laid it on thick, it smacked of trite gimmickry more than anything else. Those enigmatic Danes in Mercyful Fate, on the other hand, took such a straight-faced, deadly serious approach to its satanic themes that, back then, we were unsure whether it was all a big piss-take, or if they really meant it. Metallica once told a story about how during the recording of Ride the Lightning in Denmark, they shared a rehearsal space with Mercyful Fate. Some of the Metallica boys snuck a peek at King Diamond's lyrics book, were instantly mortified by the inscriptions inside, and quickly fled the scene.

The band's 1983 full-length debut Melissa is regarded as a seminal piece of work in heavy metal, and rightfully so; it's a genre-altering opus on the same level as Judas Priest's Sad Wings of Destiny, its seven tracks driven by the otherworldly howl of King Diamond and the formidable guitar duo of Hank Shermann and Michael Denner. Songs like "Curse of the Pharaohs", "Into the Coven", the epic "Satan's Fall", and the morbid title track combined the aggression of heavy metal, the dark beauty of gothic rock, the labyrinthine arrangements of progressive rock, and the theatrics of shock rock into one enthralling, often disturbing package.

While Melissa is a classic in its own right, playing a significant role in inspiring the black metal genre (along with Celtic Frost and Bathory), Don't Break the Oath (1984) is a much different beast. Melissa, along with the intricate guitar work by Shermann and Denner, is dominated by its crude production, the murky sound almost as distinctive as Diamond's vocals, which tend to be pushed back in the mix. Oath, on the other hand, has the band flexing its muscle like never before: produced by Henrik Lund, the sound is slicker (too slick, some argue), the songwriting is more developed, daring yet much more melodic, keyboards are used for the first time, and Diamond's vocals are not only unique, but go in directions nobody has dared to attempt since. The key factor on this album is that no matter how intricate the guitar work and labyrinthine the song structures are, King Diamond is the focal point of the band, and on Don't Break the Oath, the songs are constructed around the man's astonishing vocal range. His ability to carry a song into uncharted territory is the primary reason why the record has yet to be equaled.

The opening bars of "A Dangerous Meeting", arguably the band's greatest song, are so simple in their Euro-metal style (you can hear Accept's proto-German power metal in the main riff), yet they belie a song structure that's much more unorthodox, elevated by King's astounding delivery, as he sings about the simultaneous deaths of seven members of a coven:

Tonight the circle is broken forever

Seven people dead within a trance

In here nobody is sensing the rain

Tonight seven souls are reaching Hell

Oh, they should have known

Not to play with the powers of Hell

The interplay between Shermann and Denner is at its strongest here, as they trade leads brilliantly, alternating from fast, staccato riffs to slow, ornate, sustained chords, while drummer Kim Ruzz keeps the song locked in a spellbinding groove.

There's no equivalent to Melissa's 11-minute "Satan's Fall", but the lengthy "Nightmare" comes close. Ruzz puts in a stalwart performance, maneuvering the band through an incredibly complicated arrangement, one that seems to shift arbitrarily from pulsating polyrhythms to double-time thrash tempos to dexterous time signature changes that would make Rush sweat blood. Denner and Shermann seem possessed, unleashing riff after riff after riff, the song shifting moods every 30 seconds. The song's bridge is astonishing, beginning with a haunting harpsichord melody that segues into a ferocious tempo as King screams, "Listen, they sing, the Coven sings!", which he replies with operatic notes of his own in a spectacular display of vocal virtuosity. By the time he teases us by sneering, "You are insane! You are only living on borrowed time from your life!" we feel spent, as if we've experienced an entire album, but only ten minutes have passed.

Following the thunderous "Desecration of Souls" and "Night of the Unborn", with its stunning opening riff, comes "The Oath", the album's centerpiece. King seems to be strictly reciting satanic text, as he narrates over the song's funereal intro:

By the Symbol of the Creator, I swear henceforth to be

A faithful servant of his most puissant Arch-Angel

The Prince Lucifer

Whom the Creator designated as His Regent

And Lord of this World, Amen.

The song is immediately catapulted into a glorious, Maiden-like gallop, Shermann and Denner providing a great melodic riff, before bursting into another in what becomes an incredibly long line of movements -- including one moment of dark beauty that has King answering Shermann and Denner in a demonic, schizophrenic call-and-response, singing eerily, "Ah ah! Ah ah! Ah ah! Oooh ooh! Ooh ooh! Ooh ooh!" After what seems like seven or eight different time signature changes in three minutes (including an audacious bass solo by Timi Hansen that leaves us incredulous), the song returns to that sensational initial riff, bringing things full circle, as King croons words that, if we weren't fully convinced that he was into the whole devil-worshiping thing, sure as heckfire do now:

I swear to give my mind, my body and soul unreservedly

To the furtherance of our Lord Satan's designs

Do what thou wilt, shall be the whole of the law

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be

World without end, Amen.

After a workout like that, you need to come down, and the simple, Sabbath-meets-Rainbow stomp (think "Gates of Babylon") of "Gypsy" does the trick perfectly, accomplishing a lot in a rather straightforward arrangement. The central riff is undeniably catchy, and King's vocal's are deliciously over the top, as he screams, growls, and screeches almost comically, "Oh no no no! Oh no my brain! AH WAH AH WAH!" The fact that a band like Mercyful Fate could shift gears so completely, from such ADD-riddled arrangements like "Nightmare" and "The Oath" to a song as headbang-inducing as "Gypsy" speaks volumes about the band's versatility.

Another song that greatly resembles both Accept and Judas Priest circa 1983, "Welcome Princess of Hell" boasts the album's catchiest, most melodic chorus, as Diamond's falsetto, both the band's strength and its cross to bear, rises to the forefront. After the hauntingly beautiful instrumental "To One Far Away", which blends acoustic guitar, Denner's pretty electric guitar solo, and layers of harmony vocals by King, comes the grandiose closer, "Come to the Sabbath". Not quite as insane as "The Oath", but pretty darn close, King sings of the details of the Black Mass over a thrashy, chuggin' riff:

At first we light up a fire, and then we hail our Lord

Two candles, a black and a white, are placed upon the altar

North, south, east and west, and so we clean the air

High priestess invoking the Devil

Infernal names are spoken

Ruzz displays the speed and intricacy of Iron Maiden's legendary drummer Nicko McBrain, as he propels the song through fast passages, a mellow middle section, and a jaw-dropping fusion of funk and metal before the album comes to a close with the unforgettable lines, "If you say Heaven, I say a Castle of Lies / You say forgive him, I say Revenge / My sweet Satan, You are The One!"

With an album cover that ranks as one of the most indelible images in metal history, Don't Break the Oath truly a one of a kind record. Every bit as groundbreaking as Metallica's Ride the Lightning from the same year, operatic, catchy, and heavy beyond belief, it was an astonishing leap forward by a band only on its second album. Originally released on the fine indie-metal label Combat Records, it was hardly a marketable record at the time, as the idea of selling the idea of a dense, highly complex musical love letter to Satan sung by a kabuki-faced man with the voice of a castrato to audiences in 1984 was a tall order, but as the years have gone by, Don't Break the Oath has continued to improve with age, and in the decades to follow, other bands would pay tribute by covering Mercyful Fate's best work, from Metallica's rousing Melissa medley on Garage, Inc., to Emperor's black metal interpretation of "Gypsy", to Wolf's jaw-dropping, eerily accurate rendition of "A Dangerous Meeting".

Unfortunately, the band would split up mere months after Oath's release, leaving a generation of black-metal musicians to draw from the album's blend of the gruesome and the ornate, and a host of young death metal stalwarts inspired by the abstract, random arrangements of the more adventurous compositions. A reunited Mercyful Fate did enjoy a modest rebirth in the 1990s, yielding five albums in seven years (highlighted by 1993's In the Shadows), but it's their first two albums, and especially that 1984 masterpiece, that rank as some of the most unique, flamboyant, and devastatingly grim heavy metal music ever recorded.

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