Mercyful Fate are great. The End, ~fin~.
…Of course, that is not in the spirit of how things are done around here! As the band has reformed, however, and we are on the impending 35th anniversary of this album (at least as of when this review was started, anyway), it is pertinent to return to return to this album. Not that I’ve ever needed any excuse to do so, mind you – I consider it one of the 5 best metal albums ever made; therefore, I make no apologies for everything that follows from here.
I consider Don’t Break the Oath essentially the perfection of everything Mercyful Fate had been striving to do up to this point. This is not to demean works like the s/t EP from 1982, or Melissa – they’re absolutely brilliant works in their own right. They’d be the best albums of virtually any other band in metal. But on DBtO, Mercyful Fate took the template that Judas Priest had laid down on their 70’s masterworks, and promptly mutated into much darker, more adventurous realms. A loose, subtly progressive sensibility (at least, in the ideal of what it was in the 70’s and early 80’s) informs these songs, and gives them an inherent flexibility in terms of structure & arrangement that, especially by today’s over-schematized sensibilities, gives the band an unpredictable sensibility that almost belies their compositional brilliance.
Even when the song structuring is relatively conventional, there’s an ease of movement between their riffs, King’s falsetto work, even the bass lines etc that reeks of a band who just intuitively knew where to take these songs, instead of just stapling riffs and a Big Fucking Chorus together and calling it a day. It’s rather more slippery, more nuanced – it is an album that has a bevy of easily recognizable, memorable (at this point, iconic) moments, but actually working out the songs as a whole takes a fair bit more effort then you’d expect. It is worlds removed from the sort of cheap, disposable dross that, say, a lot of EUPM turned into after the mid 90’s. I’m just saying…
The band themselves are in top form here, as you’ve no doubt surmised at this point. To start with the obvious: it can’t really be said enough how great King Diamond was. The 80’s obvious was the era of the over the top falsetto shrieker, of course; what differentiated King from the rest, facepaint aside, was his sheer creativity with his vocal melodies. It isn’t just strictly a thing where he’s following the guitars in rote fashion; Diamond uses his piercing falsetto to mirror and contrast the guitars & the direction the songs are going in. He is certainly a varied vocalist in his own right – you’d never confuse him for a thrash band, but he can be gruffer when he needs to be in the context of a song, among other things, and that further helps lend the songs a sense of dramatic weight & power as they roll forward – but it’s really that willow-y, high-flying falsetto that’s special. It imbues this album with a ghostly presence, just reeking of otherworldly ill-intentions. His approach was unorthodox for his time, and even today it’s something so wildly outlandish that, once you learn how to “roll with it”, as it were, his vocals feel one and the same with the rest of the band. You listen to the way the guitars and vocal melodies mirror each other halfway into “The Oath”, the way he hovers all spectre-like in “Gypsy”, etc and you eventually come to realize material like this demands a singer as fearlessly creative as Diamond is here.
This isn’t even to say that MF was just a great vocalist and a so-so backing band; not by any stretch of the imagination. Hank Shermann and Michael Denner are as good of a guitar tandem as has ever been on a traditional metal album, as far as I’m concerned. They’re two lead guitarists with totally contrasting styles that fit together perfectly – Shermann being a descendant of Priest’s KK Downing, his soloing more bluesy in phrasing and punctuated with wild, exhilarating whammy bar dives that nonetheless congeal into something melodic and deeply musical. The final solo of “Nightmare” is one of the best you’ll ever lay ears on, one that effectively sets down the groundwork for the song’s final, eerily ambiguous conclusion. As for Denner, he’s a little harder to pin down, but his playing is some of the most tasteful of his era. As opposed to Shermann’s style, there’s an odd sort of understatement to Denner’s playing that underlines his sense of taste and an aching, gorgeous sense of melody that never comes across as cloying or cheesily sentimental – rather, the effortless display of a master who understands that a solo works best in the context of a song and when it’s playing off the rest of the band. (there’s this one solo he does in “Night of the Unborn” about 3:55-in where him and Timi Hansen are tearing it the fuck up, contrasting each other but somehow it just melts together even when it comes across as rather messy when it’s actually playing).
I tend to stress that with this album because, above anything else, both of those guys pretty much showcase what the ideal for traditional metal lead guitar is: as something that works effortlessly as a pivotal point of a song, and as something that’s just genuinely brilliant in its own way. This is, of course, belying that the riffage on this album is some of the finest ever laid down. You couldn’t swing a dead cat without every other riff being the unquestioned triumph of most other, lesser groups – from the way that badass, scorching opening riff to “A Dangerous Meeting” segues into that more stomping, physical main verse riff; the weird, tumbling central figure that everything in “Night of the Unborn” is built off; the opening riff to “Desecration of Souls” – all thunderous, majestic evil – and who knows how many more. Every riff on this album is indispensable in context and effortlessly memorable even outside of it. (lord knows I find myself humming the main one to “Gypsy” or get the weird, tumbling central figure of “Night of the Unborn” stuck in my head) You can point to basically any of these songs, except perhaps “To One Far Away” (which is gorgeous but built more around Denner’s incredible lead work than bludgeoning riffage), and basically say “that, right there, is what metal is all about”. It’s such a specifically apparent approach – both in the concrete and abstract senses, as it were – that you couldn’t deny it as being any but heavy metal, in the loudest, proudest & most iniquitous of senses.
The band’s gift for structure & arrangement becomes really apparent in heady tracks like “Nightmare” and the aforementioned “Night”, two tracks that don’t necessarily have easily discerned structures at first glance, and yet nonetheless are held together by, again, the band’s intuition with where these songs are supposed to go, the way the riffs & jagged, contrasting & tumbling riffs all mesh & meld into each other. “Nightmare” in particular throws in enough twists and turns that’d make most prog bands tremble at the knees; said prog bands couldn’t come up with a riff half as good as that breakdown, and the way it eventually explodes, with King’s voice, into the passage at 3:21-in – a bludgeoning powerhouse of a riff frame by impeccable, tasteful keyboard work. Or the way “Night of the Unborn” just seems to lumber from riff to riff almost recklessly; high-flying displays of furious lead guitar almost underlining that the song threatens to come apart and basically fuckin disintegrate into the reverb-soaked din that frames the songs. But it never does, and if anything, it gains a particularly incredible coherence as it rolls on, even as Shermann and Denner’s leads go at each other for the last two minutes of the song, framed by the brilliantly molten rhythm guitar & bass work. In lesser bands it’d be a mess; in this band’s hands instead, it is utterly sublime.
As tends to be the case, the rhythm section often gets overlooked for albums like this. I’d submit you’d be making a mistake if you did here. Hansen is one of the underrated bassists of metal, if nothing but because his band mates are so blatantly brilliant. But his bass lines are an equally brilliant, unsung part of this album, constantly weaving between the guitars and providing an athletic sensibility that, surprisingly, never feels very show-off-y or indulgent; it underlines the raw physicality and – y’know, the heaviness – of what the riffs do. He’s a consummate talent that knew when to pop up and add something, and when to blend in and back up the rest of the band. And it can’t be said how good of a drummer Kim Ruzz was; an insanely hard-hitting percussionist whose raw power belies a deft skill at juggling some odd-time signatures, and other subtle rhythmic flourishes that, again, just works for the most. Ruzz’s contribution to the band, like Hansen’s, is that he lends it a physical sense of power & heft while also knowing how to benefit the songs with subtle cymbal work, odd little double bass flourishes, etc. He was brilliant (and honestly, his presence on their 90’s albums is really missed, in my book).
In summation: Don’t Break the Oath embodies everything wicked, outlandish, iniquitous, and ultimately, everything brilliant that a heavy metal can be, and aspires to be. If that doesn’t sum it up, I don’t know what does.
Favorite track: since I can’t say ‘everything’, “Desecration of Souls”
Album rating: 100/100