The power and traditional metal genres are filled with bands that aspire to be the next Iron Maiden or Judas Priest. To date they have all failed, but in the process, some have made some great metal of their own. Portrait is a rarity in that, rather than looking to Maiden or Priest for inspiration, Portrait looks to the pioneers of satanic speed metal, Mercyful Fate. For my money Mercyful Fate, during its initial run in the early Eighties, was every bit as good as Priest or Maiden, maybe better, so any attempt to recreate that sound cannot help but meet with my approval. I cannot say that Portrait completely succeeds in its endeavor with its second album, Crimen Laesae Majestatis Divinae, but on its own merits, the album is anything but a failure.
Crimen Laesae Majestatis Divinae was my first exposure to Portrait, so for the sake of perspective, I gave the band’s self-titled debut a few cursory listens. Upon listening it became immediately clear that Portrait has made some changes on its second album, the most significant of which is in the vocal department. Original singer Phillip Svennefelt has been replaced on Crimen by Per Karlsson. Svennefelt did an excellent job of imitating King Diamond’s vocal cadence and lower range, but his voice lacked the power to cover the full scope of KD’s vocal acrobatics with confidence. Karlsson’s voice is much stronger, with greater range and better control. And though his performance on Crimen Laesae Majestatis Divinae most definitely bears the mark of the King, more of Karlsson’s own style shines through.
Musically, Portrait still bears the unmistakable stamp of Mercyful Fate, but Crimen Laesae Majestatis Divinae sees the band headed in a more progressive direction than on the debut. The songs on the new album tend to be longer and more involved, with a greater focus on melody over riffs, but each record has both in abundance, so the change is not necessarily dramatic.
While Karlsson’s vocal fireworks are certainly a big selling point for Crimen Laesae Majestatis Divinae, the true stars of the show are guitarists Christian Lindell and Richard Lagergren. The tandem does a near-perfect job of capturing the essence of the Shermann/Denner team, and when it comes to soloing, these two might even surpass the masters. The album is overflowing with flawlessly executed leads, and multi-layered guitar orchestrations, both fiery and elegant
Portrait is, of course, not Mercyful Fate, but when a band is so heavily influenced by another, it is nearly impossible not to compare the two. To Portrait’s credit, the band measures up better than could be reasonably expected, but when held to a standard such as Mercyful Fate almost any band falls short. Portrait’s principle shortcomings have to do with pacing and dynamics. Mercyful Fate’s tempos approached thrash metal at times, and at others, they slowed to a Black Sabbath-like crawl. Portrait’s music is not without variation in tempo, but it tends to hover around the same quick, but not too quick gallop that many power metal bands favor. This can get a bit tedious over the course of songs that are nearly all over six-and-a-half minutes. The monotony is compounded by drummer Anders Persson, whose performance is solid but unimaginative. With Kim Ruzz behind the kit, Mercyful Fate had a master of groove who could make every change of tempo or motif come in like a lion and make even the simplest pentatonic riffs sound as serious as suicide. As a band, Portrait does not have this ability to elevate average material to greatness. Fortunately, most of the music on Crimen Laesae Majestatis Divinae is pretty damn good to start with.
“Bloodbath” is perhaps the album’s strongest track, and it is, not coincidentally, one of the shortest , fastest and most Mercyful Fate-esque (though it is still over six minutes). The first two-thirds of the track are dominated by a pounding beat and relentless pacing, frequently punctuated by exquisite leads and a soaring chorus from Karlsson that probably punches more holes in the ozone layer. The last third of the track is an action-packed, multi-sectioned instrumental jam wherein the band really finds its groove with a funky, heavy riff, a bit of a melodic interlude, a stunning harmonized climax and more hot leads to bring it all home. The rest of the songs on the album feature some or all of these elements in varying degrees, but “Bloodbath” distills them into the most concise, effective package.
Between back injuries and heart surgery, it has been a rough couple of years for King Diamond, to say the least. I remain confident that King will take the stage again, but the prospect of a Mercyful Fate reunion any time soon is quite doubtful. In the absence of Fate, Portrait is the next best thing. But more than just an adequate substitute, Portrait is an excellent, enormously talented heavy metal band in its own right. If you are into that sort of thing – and if you have read this far, you probably are – Crimen Laesae Majestatis Divinae is worth your money.