Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Mercyful Fate - Mercyful Fate (1982)

In 1981, King Diamond was a young Danish musician singing in his first band, Black Rose, when he happened to meet a guitarist named Hank Shermann. Hank, also Danish and also a resident of Copenhagen, had a punk band called the Brats which had already released and album in 1980. With Black Rose not really going anywhere, King joined Hank in the Brats and began working on new material. A former Brat, guitarist Michael Denner, had started his own band and asked Hank and King to help out on the recording of a demo. Soon after, Hank, King and Michael, along with bassist Timi Grabber (Hansen), who was also in Denner's band, decided to join forces and create Mercyful Fate.

After a handful of demos, released in 1981 (including the classic Burning the Cross), Mercyful Fate delivered the most impressive non-British NWOBHM record ever heard. The band's self-titled debut laid the groundwork for their entire subsequent career and established an artistic peak that they would rarely match in the years to come. The guitar sound is a mix of classic rock and punk with general speed metal, much like the early output from Iron Maiden. The distortion is negligible and the sound is controlled and focused. The riffs also have a classic rock feel, simple, catchy, and loaded with some good chords. This probably owes a lot of King's interest in music from the 70s, such as Deep Purple and so on. The bass is fairly high in the mix so you can hear it the same, if not more in some parts than the guitars. Very NWOBHM styled and it works quite well. The drumming is dominated by a classic rock/early metal feeling. It is the basic kick drum, snare, and hi-hat combination beats that were common back then. However, there is more use of snare with crash near the same time to make it louder than what you may think at first. It also makes the music more thoughtful when it isn't just the snare being pounded wildly by itself. You hear this plenty of times in the album along with similar styles. King Diamond's unique vocals are very raw and are powerful enough to kill someone and the production compliments his vocal style. King didn't seem all too pleased with the outcome as they only had a couple days to record and mix the E.P. Much like the albums that would follow, the songs were arranged with background vocals, choirs and more guitar harmonies in mind, but they simply didn't have the time necessary for all of that. Released the same year as Venom's Black Metal and Iron Maiden's The Number of the Beast, this E.P. did a lot to get Mercyful Fate noticed and to establish them as a band to keep an eye on.

There is but one single note standing between the listener and the scorching solo that begins "A Corpse Without Soul". These riffs are pure NWOBHM. The overall sound isn't quite as dark and evil as what is found on the first two albums. This is a little more raw and stripped-down. The riffs sound absolutely hellish and King's falsetto burns into your brain. There are plenty of riff changes in this mini-epic. The lyrics venture into occult territory that had been previously explored only by Black Sabbath and Venom, yet Mercyful Fate seemed far more genuine in their approach. The solos and high-pitched screams near the end of the song are enough to melt the flesh from your face.

"Nuns Have No Fun" has a completely different feel, showcasing a lot of lead guitar-work and harmonized riffs. King's vocal approach utilizes much more of the lower, normal range and the vocals are hilarious:

"C.U.N.T. that's what you are!"

This seems kind of reminiscent of Killers-era Iron Maiden. When compared to later Mercyful Fate, this has more of a lighthearted and fun vibe to it. Nothing too serious, just a tale about raping and crucifying a nun, in the name of Satan. This is quite funny, in a morbid way.

The next song is the real highlight of this E.P. "Doomed By the Living Dead" fades in from the silence and features and opening riff and lead solo that wouldn't be too out of place on a Kreator album, if sped up just a bit. King Diamond's raw vocal performance is nothing short of brilliant. This blasphemous tune completely shifts gears for the melodic chorus. This contrast clearly demonstrates the high level of compositional genius possessed by Mercyful Fate, even at this early stage. The lyrics fit perfectly into this diabolical masterpiece, as well:

"No way to survive this evil night,
if the dead won't leave you alone
So just say goodbye to all your holy angels
You're gonna die"

Mercyful Fate are masters of creating mini-epics and this is no exception. All of the changes in tempo flow together, perfectly. To listen to this song is to take a journey through the mists of the endless graveyard, getting ever nearer to the black gates of Hell.

"Devil Eyes" brings this classic E.P. to its conclusion with more classic riffs and some unconventional rock drumming. This song is a bit more straight-forward than the previous one, but features some killer riffs and a great vocal performance by King Diamond. Again, though they had much more planned for this release, it's a good thing that it turned out the way that it did because it gives a rare glimpse of King at his rawest and most powerful. Eerie solos creep through the soundscape, burning into your brain and pulling you deeper into the flames. It doesn't get much more epic than the solos and vocals wailing that concludes this great song.

Mercyful Fate is a little heavier and rawer than the full-length that would follow it, though giving the listener a little more room to breathe and not having quite the dark and dismal atmosphere that is found on Melissa and Don't Break the Oath. With this four song E.P. the band managed to establish its legacy and, had they never recorded another song, they would still be remembered as legendary. This classic recording is one of the pinnacles of the NWOBHM style and of the First Wave of Black Metal. If you don't own this, you're better off dead.