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Thirty-Five Years Later: Mercyful Fate – Don’t Break the Oath

1984 was a banner year for heavy metal – arguably the year with the single highest concentration of total fucking classics. Part of this was because metal was still in its relative infancy after the boom of NWOBHM in 1980 and extreme metal hadn’t really happened yet besides Venom, Metallica, and Slayer pushing the envelopes of speed and extremity. So yeah, there was less to choose from, but the amount of stellar releases that still hold up today is astronomical. Debuts from Running Wild, Trouble, W.A.S.P., Omen, Anthrax, Bathory, Jag Panzer, and Cloven Hoof among others, not to mention indisputable classic non-debuts like Defenders of the Faith, Ride the Lightning, Powerslave, Haunting the Chapel, Hail to England, and The Last in Line. And amongst that staggering lineup, Mercyful Fate still found a way to stand out with their sophomore full length, Don’t Break the Oath.

It needs to be said that Sherman and Denner in their prime were one of the all-time great guitar duos, and deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Murray/Smith, Tipton/Downing, and Stanley/Frehley.  Absolutely nobody wrote riffs like these two, and the previous album, Melissa is practically a masterclass in writing riff salad songs that still manage to come together beautifully on the strength of sheer songwriting prowess.  I’ve yet to meet one single red-blooded human who doesn’t feel a shot of adrenaline as soon as “Satan’s Fall” starts.  Every ounce of that guitar and songwriting talent carried over on Don’t Break the Oath, and arguably even surpasses itself thanks to some new refinement in the riffs.  There was a lot of leftover hard rock sleaze on Mercy’s first album and EP (“At the Sound of the Demon Bell” could’ve been a Ted Nugent song, fight me), but Don’t Break the Oath excises that almost wholesale and focuses entirely on molten fucking steel. “Come to the Sabbath” and “The Oath” are two of the greatest metal songs ever written and a large part of that is because of these two dudes riffing and soloing in ways that the Judas Priests of the world were only dreaming of, which is incredible considering what Judas Priest was accomplishing at the exact same time. They were so good at evoking this bizarre, otherworldly atmospheres and sending them crashing down over you in the course of a few seconds. “The Oath” is what “Exciter” wanted to be, and “Exciter” is one of the best songs ever written already.

That atmosphere is one of the album’s greatest selling points. Melissa is one of the few perfect albums in all of metal history, and while DBTO may not be quite as concise a string of indisputable classics, it does surpass it in terms of evil, dreamlike atmosphere. There’s something just out of this world about this album, with weird creepy vocals layered over themselves in a deceptively sophisticated manner, turning what would otherwise be muscular classic metal tunes into twisted, haunting gospels from the Shadow World. Not many bands managed to capture that sort of bombastic theatricality with a dark undercurrent the way Mercyful Fate did, and tracks like “The Oath,” “Desecration of Souls,” and “Come to the Sabbath” do showcase it better than anybody before or since.

However, there’s something of an elephant in the room I’ve been dancing around up to this point.  This album… is not cool.  Not at all, not even a little bit!  Obviously, I think it’s phenomenal, it’s one of the best metal albums of all time, but I still wouldn’t be caught dead listening to it in public, and if anybody hears it and tells me they think it sucks, I’d understand. I think the music itself is undeniable in its supremacy, but let’s be real, King Diamond is absolutely fucking ridiculous. Don’t get me wrong; I wouldn’t trade him for the world. His flair for unashamed camp is a lot of fun and makes the bright and skippy riffs feel just a little bit more bizarre, and that’s a crucial intangible when it comes to Mercyful Fate’s identity. But… I mean come on holy shit he sounds like a four-year-old.  His voice is fun and distinctive, but that willowy falsetto is like a half step removed from Damien Storm. I do think it’s good what he does with his limitations (and it is a limitation, Occam’s Razor says he probably wanted to be able to sing like Rob Halford but just didn’t have the ability and so this weird childish wail is what came out) and makes creative use of his bizarre banshee coos, and his comical midrange adds a lot to the community theater rendition of Hammer Horror classics style of cheese he exudes with every syllable. He is iconic and inimitable, but on a technical level he sounds like an absolute clown.  You can’t listen to “Night of the Unborn” and seriously think that this is a guy to fear.  I feel like I could beat him up by just yelling at him until his heart stops.

Mercyful Fate - Don't Break the Oath
If you look under King’s makeup, this photo features three of the worst mustaches in metal history

Don’t take that to mean that I think this album is bad, because it’s not, but it’s really silly. There’s an undercurrent of dreamlike hellfire on every track, but the riffs are lively and skippy, complemented by one of the more underrated bass performances of the era (I adore his constant bouncy fills up the fretboard) and a goofy as hell singer. Take all of the accusations of uncool dorkery as value-neutral, but they’re there nonetheless, and fans of this record tend to downplay or deny it.  Don’t Break the Oath is evocative, iconoclastic, unique, and loaded with some of the best guitar work metal has ever seen, but it’s objectively god damned ridiculous and the total opposite of badass.

So all that’s left is to compare Don’t Break the Oath to its sister album, Melissa. They were released barely a year apart and are generally considered to be one of the greatest one-two punches in metal history, and they’re just similar-yet-different enough to be constantly compared to one another. And as far as I’m concerned? Melissa is the better album. Not by much, mind you, DBTO is just slightly less consistent. The debut has seven tracks, all of them immediate classics and containing like six of the best riffs ever written.  The followup here has nine tracks (though one is admittedly just an interlude) and only about five of them are truly as good as what came before. There are some obvious parallels, “Gypsy” is a slightly better version of “Black Funeral” and “Welcome Princess of Hell” is a slightly less good version of “At the Sound of the Demon Bell”, but for the most part this takes a more atmospheric take than its predecessor, which is almost exclusively blistering riff salads.  Nightmare” is a bit of a weak one and King sleepwalks through “Night of the Unborn,” but pretty much everything else is a stunner.  I haven’t been namedropping “Come to the Sabbath” and “The Oath” all this time on accident, they’re two of my all-time favorite songs across any genre.  I love the total goofiness of the songs, coupled with their unflinching sincerity. Mercyful Fate put their hearts into this album, and it shows, and that’s why 35 years later, it’s still a milestone in metal history.

Mercyful Fate’s Don’t Break the Oath was released on September 7th, 1984.

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