You knew we wouldn’t leave you hanging for too long, yes? Halloween without King’s solo works would have been bad enough, but no Mercyful Fate? That’s like rock without the roll, a shot without the beer, the Devil without a diabolical plan, a knifeless Crocodile Dundee. Thankfully, Last Rites is 100% opposed to having our collective heads up our ass, so here we gather again, this time for a particularly dangerous meeting.
The original plan was to somehow modify the rules of the game and make a Devil’s Dozen that included six King Diamond songs, six more King Diamond songs, and six added Mercyful Fate tunes to help finalize our trip into everlasting damnation. Then we realized that a plan such as this was 1) fucking lame, and 2) seriously restrictive, because choosing only six cuts across essentially nine Fate releases is loopier than squirrel on bath salts driving on the turnpike. Hence, this bonus Mercyful Fate Devil’s Dozen offered up to really help buuuurrrrn the wickedness of All Hallows’ Eve home.
If you were around for the intro to the solo King Diamond side of the coin yesterday, you recall that Mercyful Fate holds the distinct pleasure of being the first metal band to actually scare the living bejesus out of me. Being young, naive and Midwestern in the 80s was partly to blame, but Fate also did a phenomenal job of making literally every element attached to the band ring out with a sweeping supernatural immorality. This wasn’t just some stock evangelic-bashing metal band belting out the next level of “extreme,” this was an inexplicable bethel headed by a ghoul that produced actual hymns of blatant Devil devotion—next level fear pizzazz for anyone who perhaps hadn’t made up his or her mind about the existence of Heaven and Hell. In a world where Melissa stood as an initiation to those freshly swept into the Devil’s arms, Don’t Break the Oath was the terrifying portent of things to come for the hasty dabblers, and an equally deadly warning offered to those foolish enough to sever the poisonous bond the record so gleefully celebrates.
For some, the Mercyful Fate chapter ends there, with perhaps a dignified nod to the more playful mischief of the ’82 EP, but the band is also responsible for one of the single greatest comeback albums in the history of metal with 1993’s remarkable In the Shadows, and the four records that follow further add to the band’s acclaim, even if mostly by bits and pieces. In short, there’s a wealth of wickedness to consider here, certainly well enough to warrant an independent Devil’s Dozen that’s worthy of The Man Downstairs himself.
So… Who will be the first to fall in trance?
Something of a signature song for both Mercyful Fate and King Diamond himself, “Evil” is a self-aggrandizing tale that harkens back to blues tunes like “Mannish Boy” and “Hoochie Coochie Man.” And while the blues certainly wasn’t above messing with Old Scratch, King ups the Satanic ante quite a bit and throws in a little necrophilia to boot. As for the music…well, if you took “Victim of Changes,” “Highway Star” and “Freebird” and threw them in a blender, you might get close. “Evil” is a white-knuckle ride from its iconic intro and neck-snapping main-riff through umpteen key changes and almost as many guitar solos. And it’s a testament to the potency of Mercyful Fate’s entire line-up that the shred-fest that makes up the final third of “Evil” manages to be exhilarating, despite containing nary a peep from the group’s charismatic frontman.
NUNS HAVE NO FUN
[Mercyful Fate EP, 1982]
Mercyful Fate’s eponymous debut EP introduced listeners to just about every trait that would define the band’s career, and not-quite-but-sometimes-title track “Nuns Have No Fun” included it all. Occult lyrics, harmonized hooks from Denner and Shermann, machine gun riffage, a deft touch on the hi-hat from Kim Ruzz, and King’s full range of vocal capabilities (if less refined in the falsetto department than on later releases). But the thing that can’t quite be taught is this band’s and this song’s titanic swagger. Once King shows up for the verse, expertly weaving a thunderous tapestry with the riffage, there is almost an overload of STRUT going on here.
And in a decade of pop culture that was basically defined by peacocking, “Nuns Have No Fun” allowed Mercyful Fate to show off their own particular brand. This has more cockiness than Crockett and Tubbs with the top down and blazer sleeves rolled up; more brashness than a bunch of oiled up fighter pilots playing volleyball; more irresistible arrogance than the irresistibly arrogant way a young James Spader would wear his sunglasses; even a smoother sashay than Peter Venkman searching Dana Barrett’s apartment for signs of ghosts. Nuns might not have been having fun, but we sure as shit were.
A DANGEROUS MEETING
[Don’t Break the Oath, 1984]
I guess it makes sense that my favorite Mercyful Fate song is the opening track on the first album I owned. The ominous cover art was more than enough to convince a 13 year old to fork over enough lawn mowing money for this blind buy cassette. When I hit the play button I was floored as well as a bit confused. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why King Diamond chose his vocal style, and I both loved it and hated it. But those riffs. Holy hell, those glorious riffs. They set their teeth and kept me revisiting Don’t Break the Oath, although it admittedly took me a while to finally come to love King’s voice. Now, I know the LR readers don’t give a speckled turd about a younger, even dumber version of me and my first listen to Fate, but you do have your own story, and I’ll bet you still recall that feeling. There’s nothing like that first dance with a band that is on a direct route to the pantheon of metal. And I hope this feature helps connect you to that experience.
“A Dangerous Meeting” could easily stand on the merits of its central riffs and vocals, but the song’s structure and balance are truly masterclass. Hank Shermann’s focus on the small things are what puts this track among the very best of the vaunted Mercyful Fate catalog. The intro sequence and solo before the first verse is of course the most obvious example, but shortly thereafter there’s the quickened bass line over a contorting slower solo. And the funereal church bells in what seemed to be the song’s outro. And on and on. This stick and move attack makes the most of the song’s lean five-minute run-time, allowing a simply ridiculous pile of hooks crammed into this phenomenal tune.
ANGEL OF LIGHT
How do you follow up one of the best (and some might argue the best) metal reunion albums of the last 25 years? K.I.S.S.: Keep It Satanic, Stupid. Well, mostly Satanic, as Time throws some emphasis toward H.P. Lovecraft, witches, ghost children who only appear in mirrors, dying preachers, and angels and demons battling it out in Spain. For its part, “Angel of Light” focuses on the tricky trickster from deep down in the darkest well and his veiled deception as a shining beacon of light. And yep, the ruse works, as a second deal is struck once again with the Prince of Light. Hey, only posers make the Oath just once, right? Musically, Fate keeps it simple, stupid, which is smart, because “Angel of Light” is direct, damn-near danceable, and features one of those impossibly tempting, wickedly contagious choruses that King has offered up seemingly hundreds of times in his career. Shine in all your glory, indeed.
[In the Shadows, 1993]
It’s one of those things that almost becomes trite when talking about Mercyful Fate, but “Shadows” is basically a perfect goddamned heavy metal song. The hammering chug that these riffs ride off into syncopated stabs is straight out of the same playbook that makes Melissa one of the best albums of any kind, anywhere, and the richer production on this album only serves to highlight just how impeccable the songwriting is. My favorite little touch here is how King softly doubles the acoustic guitar (or keyboard?) arpeggio at the end of the chorus. And that double-tracked guitar solo that waltzes in at about 1:30? Are you fucking kidding me? If you are ever unfortunate enough as to get trapped in conversation with some kind of terrible dweeb who insists that heavy metal lived and died in the 1980s, allow me to humbly submit In the Shadows as proof positive that the past is only truly alive if you refuse to let it ossify and become a museum piece. Listen to this document of impossibly fluid heavy metal mastery, sure, but then go and do something about it.
It would be impossible to name Mercyful Fate’s greatest song — hell, we had a hard enough time getting it down to the top thirteen — but it’s not too difficult to pick their most accomplished moment of song arrangement. At eleven-and-a-half minutes, “Satan’s Fall” is their second longest tune (with “Dead Again” coming in at fourteen minutes decades later), and it bears all the hallmarks of early Fate’s glory — riff after glorious riff, King’s distinctive melodic sense and range, some shredding solos from Shermann and Denner, a serious dash of progressive rock influence, and a menacing darkness that was guaranteed to scare your church-going auntie. The combination of King’s “Bringing the blood of the newborn child” and that stuttering riff is pure metallic hook greatness, and there’s still ten minutes of glory to go… With nearly a dozen distinct sections that never repeat, “Satan’s Fall” is a master class in how to structure an epic-length metal song and keep it interesting.
A CORPSE WITHOUT SOUL
[Mercyful Fate EP, 1982]
One of the best aspects of Mercyful Fate’s debut EP is the rawness of the band’s sound. This is likely the result of a miniscule budget and extremely limited time, but the imperfections the recording captures somehow make the songs better. “A Corpse Without Soul” is no exception. Out of the gate the band sounds rushed, with Sherman spitting out a frantic solo before any sort of theme is even established, almost as if this song isn’t seven minutes long and he’s not going to have like eight more chances to show off. Soon enough, though, that blues-rock boogie riff kicks in, and only Mercyful Fate could make it sound so evil. In contrast to the choirs of layered, pitch-perfect vocals King Diamond would later be known for, he sounds desperate here, even a little ragged, and it fits the song’s subject matter—the horrifying realizations of a recently soul-dispossessed individual—perfectly.
Eventually, the band mellows out a bit for some groovy interludes, the second of which features a nifty little harmonized passage that comes across like a demonic version of Thin Lizzy. The final minute, however, is raging solo after raging solo, gloriously capped by what is probably the highest and most piercing scream of King Diamond’s long and illustrious career—enough to give God tinnitus.
THE OLD OAK
[In the Shadows, 1993]
At nearly nine minutes in length, “The Old Oak” is among the longest songs of Mercyful Fate’s career. And yet the song, which is features plenty of switches in volume and style, is largely defined by excelling at the simpler things in heavy metal. We could ramble on and on about how the intro is a simple-yet-perfect combination of simple riff and simple-yet-foreboding lead that you simply couldn’t master. Or how the verses see King doubling his natural voice with either a simple turn to falsetto or a simpler touch of demonic growls. Or how those leads aren’t particularly complex, right? The theatrical, acoustic interludes wonderfully understated? Utterly basic riffs that act as foundation for King’s charismatic takeover? We could blather endlessly about how it all seems so perfectly simple, and how this is the type of classic heavy metal track that drives a beginning band absolutely nutters as they try to figure out how to turn the simplistic into pure gold, only to fail repeatedly.
Sure, we could wax endlessly about Mercyful Fate’s intangibles, and how they’re all fully on display on “The Old Oak.” But wouldn’t we rather just wail out “It’s the old oak hanging TREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE” until we lose our voices? Yes, of course.
[Don’t Break the Oath, 1984]
The difference between using dark themes and actually being evil is often blurred in heavy metal, but the absolute devotion shown to our dark Lord in “The Oath” is undeniably over the top. The title, placement, and introductory theatrics of the track are an early sign King Diamond intended “The Oath” to be the centerpiece of the album, but the stupid amount of unforgettable riffing, howling, soloing and praise given to Lucifer in just one song has been enough to bring dark joy to the world for over three decades and counting. Denner and Shermann bring some of their finest work to the table in a song where both guitars seem to be gleefully dancing in the moonlight all the way to The Oath‘s final seconds. The insane vocal performance is nothing new to King Diamond, but the energy with which every note is belted out is at an all time high here. To top it all off, Timi Hansen’s bass lines are as catchy as ever, and Kim Ruzz’s progressive timing on the kit is nothing short of remarkable. “The Oath” is one of the few examples of the greatest skills of each member of Mercyful Fate converging at the right time to form one of the most memorable moments throughout heavy metal’s entire history.
Here’s a thing I never knew before Mercyful Fate taught me otherwise: witches can fucking dance. Flat out. No joke. And I’m not talking about some prissy tap dancing or ballet, witches just get down and boogie. Luckily, King Diamond has known this, like, forever. Fortunately, on Mercyful Fate’s 1994 release, Time, he decided to teach us about that very subject. Witches just dancing the dance. Featuring double solos, first by Denner, then a solo battle between Shermann and Denner, the guitar work across “Witches’ Dance” is perfect, accompanied by King’s unmistakable falsetto and an altogether catchy vocal melody. Throughout, King harmonizes with himself, layering his vocals like a choir and punctuating his verses with grunts, shouts and ghoulish screams. “Witches’ Dance” is a great example of King’s ability to embrace metal’s cheese factor and make memorable, unmistakable and addictive tunes.
CURSE OF THE PHARAOHS
Would you believe that the ramp up for this round of Devil’s Dozen is the first time I’ve heard this one? Of course you would. I might be lying, too. I’m sure I gave Melissa a spin at some point. To put a cherry on this blasphemy, I HAD heard it as part of Metallica’s Mercyful Fate medley…in their Guitar Hero game (it was a long time before I owned a copy of Garage Inc.) So that either makes me the least qualified staffer to write about it, or the most qualified. For the sake of this discussion, let’s go with the latter.
For my money, it’s the standout track from the band’s full-length debut. King Diamond’s reigned-in (relatively speaking) vocal lines allow room for the guitar duo of Hank Shermann and Michael Denner to spend ample time in the spotlight. Hey, this band isn’t scary at all, and I can really get down with this Egyptian stuff. The production sounds pretty bland and dated at first, but once you can get past that—and you will after a few listens—it sounds remarkably fresh and relevant. “Curse of the Pharaohs” is a huge reason why Melissa is held in such high regard, and why the bar was set so high for subsequent works.
COME TO THE SABBATH
[Don’t Break the Oath, 1984]
Holding a vital place on what is arguably the single greatest heavy metal album of all time, “Come to the Sabbath” represents an invitation for the ages, and hey, you’re invited! And it won’t just be you, demons and witches will be there. At over five minutes, there’s plenty of time for King to woo you into his Satanic revelry. Harpsichords, a solo by Hank Shermann and some knee-slapping riffs pepper the track making it seasoned like a fine spiral ham (which might just be served at this feast!) As always, King shows off his unique vocal talent while inviting you to praise the unrepentant fallen angel. Satan with him. While he might keep company with the creatures of the underworld, King’s voice is handed down from on high, a gift for those worthy enough to listen. So just head on down by the ruined bridge and get ready to feast (or be feasted upon.)
[In the Shadows, 1993]
Listen, there are lots of interesting, insightful, even important things one could say about “Egypt,” the leadoff track from Mercyful Fate’s world-demolishing reunion album, but I don’t really want to say any of those things. All I really want you to do is go listen to the goddamn song. Hell, go listen to the whole album RIGHT NOW. Seriously, I’ll wait. Hi, hello, how are you, I think In the Shadows is better than Don’t Break the Oath. Not a particularly popular opinion, really, but are you listening to “Egypt”? Can you hear how fucking hungry Denner and Shermann are to be back in the place they belong? One of the things I’ve always found interesting when binging the entire Fate/Diamond catalogs (because when you do one, c’mon, you’ve gotta do both) is that, despite the fact that the overall sound is at least 90% the same, there’s a tremendously different feel from one to the other. Because King is such a focal, magnetic presence, it’s easy to think of nothing else, but “Egypt” is a helpful corrective. The song does what it does purely because of the guitars. That Eastern-tinged chorus hook that King sings ONLY exists because the guitars want it to exist. King Diamond solo is the sound of tremendous heavy metal built around King’s army of voices and the stories they want to tell; Mercyful Fate is the sound of an army of guitars with stories to tell and the tremendous heavy metal voice that ices their mathematically perfect cake. “Egypt” is the pure, platonic ideal of utterly uninhibited rejuvenation.
At the sound of the demon bell
Everything will turn to Hell
Rise… rise… rise… It’s Halloween
Rise… rise… The ghost will rise