Last Rites has done 36 Devil’s Dozens over the course of precisely five years, and we’re just now finally getting to the indomitable King Diamond. I wish we had a serviceable excuse for our procrastination, but in reality, it’s mostly rooted in the realization that taking on this particular artist involves parsing through a great deal of material across two bands, so feet were dragged.
And yes, there are obviously two bands to consider here, which is an easy mark for doubling up the Devil’s Dozen once again. Truth be told, I regret our democratic decision to supersize Dozens of the past for the masters of our genre, because exercises such as these are intended to be painful by design. But thinking about combining King solo with Fate and agreeing on thirteen songs across the board is an absurd notion, particularly considering the differences in design between the two bands. So, to answer your next likely question: yes, you can expect the Fate side of this coin to drop at some ghostly hour in the future. But for now, in the interest of ushering in Halloween like proper metal nerds, let’s talk solo King Diamond.
This particular chapter of A Devil’s Dozen brought an absurd amount of songs to the table, and our submissions managed to span absolutely every release, which doesn’t happen in most cases. That’s essentially an easy way to mention that it’s likely that virtually any song that could be considered a Kingly favorite got at least one vote. The bulk of the common ballots, however—minus a rather amusing omission of the obvious “Halloween”—came from the early years, which is to be expected. Some surprises did make the cut, though, so we’re left with a pretty fair representation of a deep career that includes a hell of a lot of great songs.
Now, a bit of backstory…
I am a creaky bastard who grew up in the Midwest in the 80s within the walls of a relaxed Lutheran household with supportive, caring parents. I say “relaxed Lutheran” in a sense that, as far as religions go, Lutheranism appeared to be more easygoing compared to what some of my friends had to endure under contrasting religious banners back then, and also because my folks never forced me to suffer through bible school, choir, or any of the other extra-curricular bullshit that landed kids in church on weekday nights away from The A-Team and V. Basically, the full extent of my religious experience up until that point could be summarized as such: we went to church on most Sundays, and my least favorite part of that routine by a country mile was having to dress in lame clothes I absolutely detested. Consequently, I never had much cause to rebel against my parents or religion in my youth, so metal’s allure for me was mostly fueled by an innate attraction to the darker side of life, a prevailing appreciation for the peculiar, and an ample obsession with loud guitars and attempting to become a dynamic frontman like Bruce Dickinson.
This is relevant information because it greatly affected my introduction to King Diamond, which happened late one night as I found myself suddenly confronted by “The Oath” as it whispered from a college radio station through a clunky clock radio on my bedside table. At the time, most all of the metal in my life was largely concerned with rimed mariners, breaking laws, or Fata Morganas, and the only thing more hair-raising than hearing deadly sinfulness such as this in the black of night alone in my room was witnessing its brazenness in broad daylight upon coming across the album cover for Don’t Break the Oath in a record store shortly thereafter. At that young age, back in those simpler times, I was too skittish to dare haul something that profane into my parents’ house, but it hypnotized me every single time I found myself in that record store.
Then one day, that Don’t Break the Oath record was gone—off into the hands of someone more gallant or reckless, and I was left standing there alone, feeling as if I’d broken the goddamn oath before even mustering the balls to enter the room. But King being King, he must have sensed my quiet desperation, because almost immediately following that development, I came across a new LP copy of Fatal Portrait, and a life-long obsession was formally born. All the damning atmosphere of Mercyful Fate was in that record, but the Devil seemed mostly dismissed for devilishness, and the likelihood of being visited by Lucifer himself in hushed darkness seemed…lessened, or at least deferred.
The spell was cast.
I obsessed over Fatal Portrait for months on end, as was the established practice back when albums were truly assimilated, and my enthusiasm for all things King Diamond became multiplied tenfold to the 1,777th power once Abigail dropped in October of 1987. The impact this speedier, more modern-sounding record had on a more seasoned, devil-may-care version of me was through the roof, not only based on the strength of virtually every moment of its 40+ minutes, but also due to the fact that I was twice able to catch the band during that tour—an experience that remains a personal high point in a life filled with metal peaks. All manner of magic was in the air for those shows, making the seemingly impossible task of bringing the record’s grim tale to life an absolute reality. Never before had I been so close to such wonderfully grim and bombastic dramatics, and King Diamond was clearly born to be a master of sinister ceremonies. General showmanship and King’s vocal performance aside, the rest of the band was equally as remarkable, particularly Andy LaRocque, who worked his fretboard like a demon falling upon vestal, holy flesh.
Since then, my devotion to King Diamond has never faltered, even if some would argue that subsequent albums have, and I have seen him live under his solo moniker and with Mercyful Fate more times than I can remember. His is the only top hat that doesn’t cause me to recoil; I echo his admiration of cats; and for me, 18 has actually become 9, which works in my favor for mowing through a couple rows of Thin Mints, but it’s hell on bartenders when I ask for change from a $20.
Now, with the arrival of Fall and its crisp reminder of the darker, deader, colder side of life, we turn our thoughts to thirteen favorite King Diamond songs, and we celebrate the truth that every night can and perhaps should be Halloween, and we hope you join us in our escapade by reveling in all of his wonderfully fiendish works.
My grandma and your grandma, sitting by the fire. My grandma turns to your grandma and says, “OHHHH, OHHHH, OHHHH, OHHHHHHHHH, it is TIIIIIMMME for teeaaaa…” You should probably stay away from my grandma. Things get weird.
Over the course of his career, King Diamond has released multiple classic albums, but which one is the best one? In the arguments I’ve seen about The Greatest King Diamond Album, it usually comes down to one group advocating Abigail, which is a godly album but the wrong choice, and another group calling for “Them”, which is the correct answer. In the album’s storyline, “Tea” is the point where young King discovers the true depth of his grandmother’s madness, but like all the best King Diamond tunes, it’s more than just a horror story: It’s also the sum of some stellar riffs, one of King’s all-time biggest chorus hooks, and some killer melodic shredding by Pete Blakk and the ever-underrated Andy LaRocque.
Tea-time with Grandma hasn’t been the same since 1988…
After the solo career “soft opening” that was Fatal Portrait, Abigail unleashed everything: the spooky story, maximum LaRocque-ianisms, and most importantly, King’s massive theatrical scope. The result was an album full of bombastic atmosphere and pomp, but as the classic title track reveals, the core formula from the Fate days really hadn’t changed. This remains all about The Riff and The Vocal, as it should. And holy shneikies, what a riff and what a vocal. After a bit of shreddy noodling, that goddamn riff pops in like Jesse “The Body” Ventura invading your Auntie Nettie’s 75th birthday party, with Mikkey Dee’s ride cymbal the incessant tolling of a ring bell. Then King’s gravelly vocal tosses out accusations, then the first of about 1.09^23 falsetto wails expresses despair. The “I AM ALIIIIIIIIIIIIIVE” passages and keyboard outro solidify the greatness of the song, but it all hinges on that single, impeccable motif. It’s the rare perfect moment within perfect song within perfect album that is defining of an amazing career, unable to get old no matter how many times you hear it…
…unless you happen to be a Miriam, Jonathan, or Abigail that is close to a big King Diamond fan, in which case you’re probably really tired of this song. Well, get over it.
[Fatal Portrait, 1986]
One of the most important aspects of constructing a 12” was knowing how to properly execute two things: 1) Leave the listener in a little bit of suspense after the last track of “Side A,” and 2) Go hard in the paint once that wax was flipped upside down. “Charon” kicks things into high gear very well as Michael Denner and Andy LaRocque show signs of great chemistry while the King gives the mysterious carrier of souls a voice worthy of its reputation. In a discography almost entirely consisting of concept albums, Fatal Portrait‘s haunting story of a girl who is both brought to life and sentenced to death by her mother is a great example of the magnitude of King’s storytelling capabilities, and “Charon” is the first of the album’s tracks that helps bring the story fully to life.
[The Eye, 1990]
“Burn” seems like a relatively simple song, but in part that’s what helps it set the stage so well for this severely underappreciated album that caps one of the all-time greatest winning streaks in heavy metal. (Fate’s S/T EP in 1982 through The Eye in 1990 saw Fate or solo King release a truly stellar album every single year with only one gap in 1985.) “Burn” has an immediately infectious chorus (“Burn in the night / You’re the devil’s child”), but what really pushes it over the top is the mid-song switch-up to the “Higher / Burning higher” second chorus, which absolutely drips with a sort of sneering Judas Priest swing. Let that devil play his violin so wild. Although King’s solo career went dormant for a while following The Eye, it was primarily to clear the way for one of the all-time great reunion albums. That’s no reason to avoid staring at the eye of the witch, though.
FROM THE OTHER SIDE
[The Spider’s Lullabye, 1995]
The Spider’s Lullabye isn’t King’s best album, not by a country mile, but, inconsistent though it may be, it opens strong with the driving “From The Other Side.” Atop Darrin Anthony’s relentless beat and some straightforward but killer riffs, King weaves a tale of an out-of-body experience, balancing the thrashing verse against another of his signature huge choruses and a groovy b-section riff that swings and swaggers in equal measure. It’s a rare King Diamond tune that isn’t part of some greater conceptual whole, but “From The Other Side” shows that the man can tell a creepy story in just one song alone, and really, as great as the concepts and the imagery have been throughout King’s career, tracks like this one prove that it’s really always only ever been about two things: Those godlike vocals and melodies, and those godly riffs and solos. As long as we have those, nothing can ever stop us…
The opening measures of “Welcome Home” are so great that it’s not uncommon for me to interrupt the song and start it over again. Mikkey Dee’s muscular run sets the stage for a frenetic pace, but the ensuing LaRocque/Blakk swaggering riff is equally massive and nuanced. It’s a riff for the ages, and one is immediately struck by the masterful musicianship of the band.
And then King Diamond joins the fray…
He crashes into the the verse with a sky-scraping note that only King can hit. And just like that, it’s clear that “Them” is going to be something truly special. Diamond uses his full vocal range to bring the album’s story to life in a way no other vocalist could, and he uses every tool in his arsenal to realize its dramatic potential.
A MANSION IN DARKNESS
Hey, some people inherit their Aunt Gertrude’s china, others a baldness gene from Grandpa Pete. But the likelihood that you’ll ever take ownership of a haunted mansion that causes your significant other to carry the cursed ghost of a stillborn baby that eventually terminates with you being shoved down the stairs to an early death via a broken-ass neck? Pretty slim. Not impossible, mind you, but pretty slim.
If you do get that letter in the mail, however, and you find yourself well on the way to your new ancient chateau after having JUST IGNORED SEVEN HORSEMAN WHO WARNED YOU TO TURN AWAY, “A Mansion in Darkness” represents the perfect melody to welcome you to your new home…that appears to be living and breathing. Holy shit, did that shadow just turn on the Lakers game?
Outside of “No Presents for Christmas,” a more inviting intro to a King Diamond song does not exist beyond “A Mansion in Darkness.” Mikkey Dee’s playful attack on the cymbals is absolute magic, and Andy LaRocque’s diligence on the frets makes the song sound like one long, ridiculously melodious lead (that Denner eventually joins in on at the very end.) And KING! He’s just the greatest audio book voice actor who’s ever lived—perfectly balancing those drEEEamy drEEEamy highs and shadowy lows in a way that literally only King can do. “A Mansion in Darkness” is a perfect song on a perfect album that’s absolutely perfectly suited for Halloween every single night.
[The Puppet Master, 2003]
The later era King Diamond albums aren’t all gems. Let’s face that fact now. But, while they might not be epic albums, they have some absolute rippers amongst the songs. “Magic” is one such ripper. For starters, the opening riff is an absolute head-basher, and King provides everything you need from him—a vocal range that would make Mariah Carey breakdown and cry, layered harmonies with himself over the chorus, and memorable, hummable lyrics. LaRocque provides multiple solos across the track, each one better than the last. What’s magic is that King decided, while residing right here in America (Dallas, Texas, for some inexplicable reason), to bless us with this track. While Puppet Master might not be King’s best effort overall, “Magic” takes a well-deserved spot among his thirteen most rippingest tracks.
AT THE GRAVES
Following up “Them” with yet another concept album, not to mention a sequel, was a ballsy choice to be sure. But in the late 80s, King Diamond was on the kind of run that has been equalled by fewer bands than you can count on your hands and toes. From the beginning, “At the Graves” shows that Conspiracy was more than up to the task. The organ-drenched intro features a “previously at Grandma’s house” tone to it before the metal kicks in and things get positively nuts. NUTS. Absolutely, undeniably bonkers. The riff is like a reminder that these realms will never be safe, while King’s vocals here are among the wildest of his extremely wild career. How he includes so much inflection when he’s falsetto-banshee-wailing “RIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIISING FROM THEIR GRRRRRRRRRRRAVE” ought to be one of metal’s greatest mysteries, but King’s talents have always been taken for granted. As is his band’s ability to paint images of wandering spirits and tormenting ghosts with heightened thrashing, a super punchy, near-prog accompaniment to one of several LaRocque solos, and near overload of theatrics they want to playfully toss in at any given time. This song seems to unload the vaults, but there’s still a (really, really great) album to follow. At this point in their history, there simply weren’t enough cylinders for the King Diamond Band to fire upon.
[Fatal Portrait, 1986]
Although much of Fatal Portrait demonstrates a whimsical and adventurous approach to a dark theme, King’s vocal performance offers much more of a demented take on the album’s conclusion, thus demonstrating not only his ability to turn his melodic tone on a dime, but also to enhance his dark storytelling with an atmosphere that’s thickened by a chilling and, at times, downright sinister atmosphere. “Haunted” is one of the greatest reminders that King Diamond is the best host any heavy metal album could possibly have.
THE TREES HAVE EYES
[House of God, 2000]
The projected havoc Y2K was supposed to pass upon us humans was luckily a total farce, and with that cataclysm thankfully ducked, the year managed to produce some absolutely smashing heavy metal records—Gateways to Annihilation, Brave New World, Down Among the Deadmen and Tara, just to name a handful, plus a very pleasant return to form from King Diamond after two mild disappointments in a row.
What House of God does right, apart from returning to a heavier sound, is deliver the Big Hook that fans had come to expect from the dynamic Diamond/LaRocque duo. The record is loaded with catchy leads and mightily infectious choruses, and “The Trees Have Eyes” does a fantastic job of setting that stage as the album’s first proper tune after a short, particularly dark intro. One spin of this cut will plant that ruthless refrain in your brain for days, and Andy ignites the corners like a bolt of lightning striking a church steeple.
Note to self: If you’re ever in the wilderness and find yourself suddenly surrounded by dangerous wolves, only to eventually get lead away from said wolves by an even bigger wolf into a creepy, abandoned church, don’t have sex with that wolf, even if it transforms into a super beautiful woman.
[The Eye, 1990]
You all know my story by now, late to the parties of most things. Even as I began discovering metal in the early 90s, growing up in a conservative household, the images of King Diamond and the knowledge of him being a Satanist scared me. So that kept me away for awhile. Eventually, that fear turned to disdain for the cheesy schlock factor, which continued to keep me away. When I finally did brave a listen, it was “Trick or Treat” from Metalmeister Vol. 2, which did the man no favors. Now I just plain didn’t like him.
Fast-forward a few years and a colleague professed great admiration for King Diamond and insisted that I listen to one particular track. I rolled my eyes and agreed. Besides, my metal palate was much more developed now, maybe things would be different. Obviously they were, or I wouldn’t be writing this. “The Trial” was an absolute revelation: dark, sinister, and delightfully entertaining. I was amazed that one man could have the range and ability to use so many distinct vocal styles all at once. It was like an entire musical rolled into five minutes. I was hooked from then on, just in time for his resurgent period in the new millennium. Though I have since discovered many gems in the treasure trove that is his catalog, for me “The Trial” is and will always be the definitive King Diamond track.
Though it’s nearly always mentioned in the same breath as “Them,” it still feels like Conspiracy rarely gets its due acclaim. “Victimized” sits in that same magical place you’ll find on so many of King’s solo albums—roughly midway through the second act, usually either right after an important piece of the story or right before the story’s conclusion. (“Them” does a similar move with “The Accusation Chair,” Abigail with the title track, and so on.) None of that intra-discography nonsense matters the slightest, though, if you crank this sucker up. The main riff that opens the song is about as baroquely swaggering as LaRocque and Blakk ever got, and although King’s vocals are relatively restrained throughout, they consistently dance in beautiful step with the many rhythms that sneakily shift and return throughout the song. The final guitar solo break is pure magic as it flows back into the chorus, and all of that is BEFORE the tremendous (and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it brief) neoclassical harpsichord-guitar duet that sends the song out on a note of deliriously sturdy shred. Friends, this shit is simply the best.