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Rank and File

Rank And File: Mercyful Fate

“I was born on the cemetery, under the sign of the moon, raised from my grave by the dead!”

Since my colleague took on the task of ranking the King Diamond solo albums a little bit ago, I see this as a good time to tackle the shorter discography of his – Mercyful Fate! They had a very digestible run of records, two that changed the entire metal scene in the early ’80s, and five more after reformation in the ’90s. I’m also going to include the Mercyful Fate EP in this run, as it’s a pretty important part of the entire story. Albeit some lesser titles, there isn’t a flat-out bad album to be had. So come with me and run through this chasm full of horror, ghouls, and Satanism, as I look at each album stacked against themselves!

8) Dead Again (1998) “I can see it in your mystery eyes, I can feel it on your breath tonight”

Objectively, there isn’t anything bad about Dead Again, but man, oh man, is it ever unfocused. The lack of direction is too obvious to overlook, it drags on for far too long (especially the title track), and there’s ultimately little to gain from it that you couldn’t just snag from the other records. Sure, there’s some fun noodling in “Mandrake,” and the doomy opening of “Torture (1629)” lets on some strong feels. Small things here and there like that are nifty enough. But besides that, this is just fair heavy metal that can be skipped.

Final Grade: C-

7) Into The Unknown (1996) “But they didn’t stand a chance with their drunken minds!”

Right here is where we get into some of the most straightforward territory. Into The Unknown is a very song-oriented disc that isn’t overly theatrical like anything before. The production is also cleaned up, and for this, it loses some of the previous alchemy. Thankfully, most of the songs are still pretty strong. “Fifteen Men (And A Bottle Of Rum)” is a fun take on sailors in a storm with pummeling drums and sweeping guitar chops. “The Uninvited Guest” is also an easy classic with its punchy nature, and the calming chord-intro of the title track leading to a stomping banger is packed with fire. You can also get your spooky grooves with “Holy Water,” particularly in the chorus. But I’d be lying if I said there weren’t any boring flyovers such as “The Ghost Of Change.” I also hardly think that “Ktulu (The Mad Arab Pt. II)” was necessary, and the vocals in this chorus only irritated me. A good album, but less-than essential.

Final Grade: B-

6) 9 (1999) “That night was the darkest of all, that night I sold my soul to you”

Considering what came before it, I consider 9 to be a breath of fresh air. It hearkened back to the Satanic imagery, laying itself on heavily while adding a thrashier boost. I’d even say the bassy rhythms let in some Motorhead-isms, such as in “House On The Hill” or the blitzing “Insane.” Opener “Last Rites” kicks you without mercy (ha!) instantaneously, blowing up with angry riffs and raging speed. There’s still room for lighter melodies and doomier bridges like in “The Grave,” which allows for a dynamically spread out disc. Rock ‘n roll vibrancy and swoops can be found buried under the evil overcasts in “Sold My Soul.” This is somewhat safe, keeping it clean and straightforward despite the different angles and heavier push. It may not be perfect, but I enjoy what came of the latest record to date.

Final Grade: B+

5) In The Shadows (1993) “Deep down under, the roots of a tree they have been damned”

In The Shadows does absolutely nothing to hide that it’s very much been passed through years of King Diamond solo albums. The storytelling lyricism became more apparent, and this album’s length passes the ’80s efforts. “The Bell Witch” checks all boxes, signifying that this classic occult brand of heavy metal still has its magic. Longer tunes naturally become more apparent, “The Old Oak” being my favorite. This one is loaded with steady progressions and slight changes of pace. “Legend Of The Headless Rider” is serviceable as well, just not as powerful. To the point of more straightforward numbers, “Shadows” is full of stomping chugs with such a strong chorus. There’s also a nice throwback intertwined with the catchy factor to “Is That You, Melissa?” The only thing holding this from perfection is a slightly weaker middle, but the top half and the last two tracks are perfection!

Final Grade: B+

4) Mercyful Fate (EP) (1982) “No way to survive this evil night, if the dead won’t leave you alone!”

Mercyful Fate was like a poorly produced idea of what was to come, but that’s all part of the experience behind it. Truly, I find a lot of this to be even catchier than what’s on Melissa, just not as masterfully written. Lots of rock ‘n roll vibes can be found everywhere. “Doomed By The Living Dead” has such a sing-song like chorus, and that opening solo is immaculate. The same can be said for the verses and intro of “A Corpse Without A Soul.” “Devil Eyes” is built on steadier drum-taps (some of the best ever) and rhythms, while “Nuns Have No Fun” is a lyrically disgusting ball of, well, fun! So it’s a bit mixed, and King’s vocals haven’t quite been perfected yet. But all of the obvious darkness is there, and I’d be lying if I said there was a single moment that I dislike.

Final Grade: A-

3) Don’t Break The Oath (1984) “Later on the master will join us, called from the heart of hell”

For only dropping one year after the first record, Don’t Break The Oath made a pretty significant change in sound. Let alone the fact that it’s less raw, but the songs are a little less album-oriented and aren’t as focused on flow so much as individual writing. And man, is that writing ever fantastic! Opener “A Dangerous Meeting” will give this all away from the gate, boasting more fluorescent guitar tones that still drag you under with hellish winds. This works well in the shorter numbers, as “Gypsy” is a favorite, chant-happy number. “Come To The Sabbath” and “Welcome Princess Of Hell” are perfect examples of spoopy fun, despite the dark subject matter and intricate playing. I love how “Night Of The Unborn” casts what feels like darker Judas Priest energy in the speedier riffs. And of course, you can still find your doomy, synthy scaries with tunes like “The Oath.” This is pretty damn close to perfect, if not just the tiniest bit less memorable than the one that came before. Still an essential.

Final Grade: A

2) Time (1994) “You got to stop this game, before I go – insane!”

Although the album that brought Mercyful Fate back from the dead came out a year prior, Time was where all of the magic was fully channeled back into the members’ veins. It cleaned up the few fillers that In The Shadows had and birthed something even greater than Don’t Break The Oath. “Nightmare Be Thy Name” is as good as anything on Melissa with it’s ghostly but catchy fumes, and this mindset doesn’t leave. The next few tracks, “Angel Of Light,” “Witch’s Dance,” “The Mad Arab,” and “My Demon” all grasp the same level of hookiness without losing any life. The title track then flips everything on its back to some spooky balladry and keys, and from there, shit gets as weird as that song is itself. The whole thing really works like a horror movie with a plot twist half-way. The songs take a more intense approach with focus precision instrumentation and progression, rather than straight hooks. “Lady In Black” even sneaks in some melancholic vibes and those crawling licks at the beginning of “The Afterlife?” Oh boy! Backing vocals and howls are perfected all over the place, just as they were in the ’80s. If you only listen to one post-Oath record, make it this one.

Final Grade: A

1) Melissa (1983) “Don’t touch, never ever steal, unless you’re in for the kill!”

I really don’t think I even need to go into deep details about how influential Melissa is, because it’s that fucking obvious (and I did it before). But holy hell, what a dark, evil, and captivating record for something so traditional regarding heavy metal. Michael Denner and Hank Shermann hit dual twin guitar-attack levels in their debut record that they never fully captured again, and “Satan’s Fall” has more riffs alone than some entire albums. But spreading those evil entities that come out of an epic across six other songs flawlessly is what’s truly exceptional. The rhythms in “Curse Of The Pharaohs” are extremely mean, and King Diamond’s vocals and backing wails are fucking grueling. That’s even further exaggerated on “At The Sound Of The Demon Bell,” a little homage to Halloween and all things spooky.

And that’s just it, there isn’t a single harsh moment on here, yet it feels so much more sinister than most death metal albums. It’s almost like a proverbial temptation welcomed by the devil himself. “Into The Coven” reels you in with a baroque sounding intro lick before burning itself down into a pile of Satanic ash, lyrically and musically. “Black Funeral” flips this over and drops the haunting passages immediately, being carried by galloping bass stomps by Timmy “Grabber” Hansen, and Kim Ruzz’s kit-work to maintain the speedy energy. All of that in under three minutes! Opener “Evil” allows room for a straightforward entrance, while the title track closes things with suspenseful chills. What a perfect record! No album that King Diamond ever made reached this level of perfection.

Final Grade: A+

 

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