This being the tenth installment of Riffology, I thought I would celebrate this mini-milestone by covering one of my favorite bands: Mercyful Fate.
I could go on for days about how great this band was (is?), but suffice it to say, I hold the band’s work through Don’t Break the Oath as some of the best metal ever made. Had Fate been able to keep it together a little longer, I think the Hank Shermann / Michael Denner guitar tandem would be revered almost as much as Tipton / Downing and Murray / Smith. But enough fan-boy gushing – let’s get to the riff.In this lesson, we will examine a riff from the track “Doomed by the Living Dead,” featured on Mercyful Fate’s classic 1982 self-titled EP, often called Nuns Have No Fun. The riff in question runs from 2:04 to 2:59 in the video below.
In our last lesson, we covered the phenomenon know as the breakdown, and while this riff does not structurally resemble the common form of a breakdown riff today, it does more-or-less fill the same musical role: a slower section in an otherwise fast song that gets heads or bodies moving.
The “Doomed by the Living Dead” interlude is in the key of A-minor, a contrast to the rest of the song, which is roughly in the key of E-minor. The riff is a rather simple, four-bar pedal-tone riff that uses primarily inverted fifth-chord shapes, the same ingredients in the “Balls to the Wall” intro from our very first Riffology lesson. The main implied chords of the riff are A-minor, C and D, which are all part of the A-minor pentatonic scale and its cousin, the blues scale. Consequently, this riff has quite a blues-rock feel to it, which is further enhanced by the Chuck Berry-styled double-stop bends at the end of the riff. Mercyful Fate, however, by the force of Satan’s might, make it sound evil.
The key to this riff is the initial build-up. The riff begins with one guitar, accompanied by Kim Ruzz’s big, fat kick-drum knocking out quarter-note beats. This simple steady pulse practically defies the listener to remain immobile. The second time through the riff, an added guitar enters with a solitary power chord on the first beat. The first time it is an A power chord to match the first chord of the riff. The second time through, the second guitar plays C-5, which, combined with the first guitars A-5, makes an A-minor 7 chord, which is slightly dissonant, but still relatively pleasant. The third time, however, the second guitar plays B-5, which clashed rather strikingly with the A-5, and adds a more diabolical character to the proceedings. The second guitar then makes a quick stab at F-5, then F-5 to G-5 before the whole band comes in. From here on, Ruzz adopts more traditional drum patterns, and both guitars play in perfect unison, setting the stage for King Diamond to screech out some gloriously Satanic mumbo-jumbo as only he can do.
One of the things I appreciate about this riff is that it legitimately rocks, but works within a metal context. Mercyful Fate was at the leading edge of metal in 1982 – knocking on the door of thrash metal, in fact – but for all the band’s speed, adventurous arrangements and over-the-top Satanic imagery, its music was not as far removed as one might expect from “Johnny B. Goode.”
Post your favorite Mercyful Fate riff.
Mercyful Fate – The Beginning (which contains the debut EP)Extra Credit:
Learn to play “Doomed by the Living Dead“.