Sunday, April 12, 2009

Mercyful Fate - Don't Break the Oath (1984)

After establishing themselves as one of the best new bands in the growing underground metal scene of the 80s, the Danish Black Metal band Mercyful Fate returned to Copenhagen's Easy Sound Studios in May 1984 to record the follow-up to their classic debut. Once again, they worked with producer Henrik Lund, though the band members were much more hand-on this time around. The songs maintained the majestic heaviness that the band was known for and they harnessed their multi-tempo, multi-section style of songwriting into compact epics that were still complex, yet more hard-hitting. Released in the first week of September 1984, Don't Break the Oath proved to be a worthy successor to Melissa and cemented the legacy of Mercyful Fate.

Music has always had the ability to capture the atmosphere of the time when I am first discovering it. This masterpiece of early Black Metal was initially explored during a very dark and miserable time in my existence; therefore, it retains the hellish spirit of that period. In a way, it only adds to the overall feeling of darkness on the record. I obtained this shortly after the first one, so I found myself digesting both around the same time. After hearing how King Diamond's vocals were an acquired taste, I was surprised once I actually encountered them for myself. There was nothing to 'get used to' at all. With the music that I grew up with, this seemed fairly natural and I couldn't imagine the songs sounding any other way.

"A Dangerous Meeting" begins with a riff as sharp as a sacrificial blade, dripping with fresh blood. Immediately, it is apparent that the sound here is more raw and powerful than that of the previous album. The tension is present from the first moments, and it serves to build the anticipation. By the time the song really gets underway, you are nearly ready to burst. The opening solo is pure Mercyful Fate and could never be mistaken for anyone else. The mid-paced thrash riffs, along with King's insane falsetto are enough to pierce your skull. The songwriting is brilliant, showing great refinement from the earlier versions of this song. Of course, the lyrics display the same obsession with the occult, which has not lessened in any manner.

"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"

As the song continues, the pace slows to a doom-filled crawl and the atmosphere is accentuated by the chiming of funeral bells and an incredibly eerie guitar solo. This is a very strong opener which sets the tone for the rest of the album.

"Nightmare" begins with the drums and a simple bass line, before the guitars join in. This one utilizes a faster pace than the previous song, though possessing the usual tempo changes. It is said that the lyrics were inspired by a dream that King had, as a child, which is actually what triggered his interest in the occult. Near the middle, the riffs seem more reminiscent of something from the debut E.P. accompanied by very ghoulish vocals. As if this was not enough, it is followed by more classical guitar brilliance, unleashing a very haunting melody. This song seems to get better and better as it progresses, being almost inhumanly good. The overall feeling becomes more and more insane as the end draws near.

The next song begins with very heavy riffs and demonic vocals. "Desecration of Souls" displays a bit more of King's normal vocal approach and less falsetto, with the exception of the refrain. This one is more mid-paced, with more of a relaxed speed. There is more focus and direction than on the last song, and some truly amazing solo work. All in all, a very memorable piece.

"Night of the Unborn" begins with an insane solo, followed by guitar riffs that build in intensity. The song then changes pace, effortlessly. King's falsetto returns in full force, here. Again, one has to be impressed with Mercyful Fate's ability to create such memorable songs, while still maintaining the complexity. King's vocal lines have a lot to do with this, as they aren't just randomly shouted. Much like one of the instruments, he makes sure to remain in harmony with the rest and it all works very well. There is a brief burst of speed, as the song progresses, but this falls to the wayside in favor of some great lead solos.

The next song begins with a terrifyingly evil intro. This is no horror movie soundtrack. This is the audio equivalent of a black ritual, held on the night of the full moon, sacrificing virgins, in the light of torches, with rusted blades that have ended countless lives. "The Oath" is one of the most brilliant works of black art ever created. As the thunder rumbles in the distance, cold winds blow and the funeral bells toll through the sound of falling rain. As the song begins, you cannot help but be in awe of its genius. The first true verse of the song conveys a great deal of conviction.

"I deny Jesus Christ, the deceiver
And I abjure the Christian faith
Holding in contempt all of its works"

The vocals are as haunting as the guitar melodies, truly working as another instrument. In many ways, this song defines what Mercyful Fate is all about. That much is evident in the lyrics.

"In the name of Satan, the ruler of Earth
Open wide the gates of Hell and come forth from the abyss
By these names: Satan, Leviathan, Belial, Lucifer
I will kiss the goat"

In a sense, this is the musical follow-up to "Satan's Fall", though it is a bit more concise and has a definite theme. Unfortunately, it is another one of those songs that must be heard to be understood. This is something that you must experience to truly comprehend its dark Satanic majesty.

"Gypsy" follows this, beginning with a very catchy riff. This is the shortest real song on here, though it contains all of the trademark ingredients of a classic Mercyful Fate song. The complex arrangements remain, as well as King's unique vocal approach and the blistering solo work of Hank Shermann and Michael Denner. The atmosphere isn't quite as dark as what was established on the previous song, probably in the hopes of giving the listener a bit of a breather. It is best, maybe, for them to finish hearing the album before sacrificing their soul to the lord of darkness.

More heavy and powerful riffs are found at the beginning of "Welcome Princess of Hell". There is a sorrowful feeling running through this one, though not too obvious. The mid-paced thrash riffs and killer solos are easily recognizable and remain stuck in your brain long after hearing this. Also worth mention is that there seems to be an issue regarding the title of the song. It is said that the actual name of the song is "Welcome Princes Of Hell", not "Welcome Princess Of Hell". It was a title misprint, where the lyrics were correctly written in the original pressing but the title wasn't. The distinction can also be heard in the song (the prince "is" vs. prince "s"), as well as the plural connotation of the lyrics "I'm alone with my friends, We will be back, we will be back." Though this is a small matter, it does change the interpretation of the song a great deal. Reading the lyrics, it seems to work, either way. Unfortunately, there is no mention of this on the official website, so it is not clear. Whatever the case, this is an undeniable classic.

"To One Far Away" is an instrumental track that takes the minimal amount of sorrow from the previous song and expands on it. This very brief piece has a somber feeling, reminiscent of the title track from the previous album.

This classic album concludes with "Come to the Sabbath". From the first moments, it grabs you by the throat in all its Satanic glory. The opening riffs are dark and epic, as well as King's evil wailing.

"Come come to the sabbath
Down by the ruined bridge
Later on the master will join us
Called from the heart of Hell"

This masterpiece features faster parts with riffs that are near thrash as well as slower sections. The complex arrangements flow together, seamlessly. This is the climax of the whole album; truly representative of what Mercyful Fate had to offer. It's all here, in this compact epic. There is even a passing reference to Melissa to be found here. In the last minute or two, the atmosphere becomes exceptionally dismal, with King's ghastly moans echoing over haunting classical guitar melodies. Very few songs, by any band, can approach the sheer brilliance of this masterpiece. Indeed, it is rare for many albums to reach the levels of brilliance found on Don't Break the Oath or its predecessor, Melissa. The sad thing is that, just as they had really built a great deal of momentum, Mercyful Fate had, unknowingly, recorded their swansong (for the time being). Creative differences between Hank Shermann and King Diamond led to the downfall of the band, which split in 1985. While Hank went on to form an ill-fated pop band, King Diamond began a solo career, joined by Michael Denner and Timi Hansen. The legacy of Don't Break the Oath can be found on Fatal Portrait, which features a similar sound, though being different enough that it warranted laying one band to rest and beginning a new one.