1999, Metal Blade
I am somewhat late in finally coming to terms with Mercyful Fate, having only started my exploration of their albums in the last year or so. But Fate is one of those 'classic' metal bands, producing a few works that are suitably regarded as masterpieces within the heavy metal genre, and they are a band that escapes the limitations of time as their melodic gifts easily transcend the trappings of 'scenes' or 'styles'. What first made me go back and look into Fate's first two albums was the constant claiming of their influence by modern bands - Emperor in particular. 'Why not go check them out?' I thought. I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. My first taste was 'Don't Break The Oath' and I still think that is their best album - others will argue or belabor the point, but it doesn't really matter. That album is essential listening for fans of Metallica's earlier work - if you want to know where Kirk Hammett got all his ideas...
Mercyful Fate has a style all of their own, and that style has followed them to the present day, sticking to the band and their albums outside of King Diamond's solo work. There is an immediately noticeable difference between 'Melissa', for example, and 'Abigail', and it resides mainly in Fate's esoteric melodicism as well as their concentration on progressive song structures. This album doesn't break with that pattern.
So what we have here is an update, once again, of a classic metal band striving to come to terms with what they have in part created or influenced. You may have read elsewhere that this album owes a large debt to Metallica, in that Fate realized they had to 'modernize' their sound to appeal to the audience of today, but I don't really think that's true. First of all, this album is far better than anything Metallica have released in the last five years - easily. Secondly, this is a band that never really needed to update their sound, as they have been ahead of the pack all the way. There are melodic elements on their albums from the mid-'80s that I don't think many bands could touch even now. Yes, guitarist Hank Shermann is that good. So what has Fate done with this, their last album of the twentieth century? Mainly, I think, they have escaped the specter of their earlier work, and moved out from under the cloud that 'Melissa' and 'Don't Break The Oath' spread over them - the cloud of 'unrealizable ambition', that is to say: the thought that they could never equal those classic albums. They have left that behind, and climbed to new heights.
This album is such a breath of fresh air. I haven't heard music this melodically gifted in at least six or seven years - if not longer. Mercyful Fate bring to the table a long history of wrenching riffs into catchy and evocative patterns, and they steer through these songs with unerring precision, putting the right notes in the right place, the right accents over the right thrusts of rhythmic intensity. What first stands out is of course the catchy pop sensibility of the melodies, the sing-along nature of the choruses and the supposedly easy-to-follow riff patterns, but dig a little deeper and you will discover that the dark heart of Mercyful Fate still beats under the illusory accessibility. There are things going on in these songs that defy easy categorization - listen to the interplay of the guitars, the completely bizarre nature of the blistering leads, the occult vocal patterns - especially in the sixth song 'The Grave', the feelings that the music gives rise to outside of the obvious lyrics, the constantly-changing main melodies...there's a lot here to discover. Also worth paying close attention to are the incredibly tight, intricate, and crushing rhythms that are strummed into your head with the light touch of a maestro's hand. A hand that is, of course, wrapped in an iron gauntlet. This is an album for the ages, and I hail Mercyful Fate for once again creating music that effortlessly sails past all the restraints or limitations of the genre.