Mercyful Fate: Satan's Favorite Band
The Devil's Music?
As a kid, I was always skeptical of the religious types who called hard rock or heavy metal "the Devil's Music." I remember quietly snickering to myself at a Sunday school teacher's claims that if we played Led Zeppelin's "Stairway To Heaven" backwards, it would reveal a demonic voice calling out to "My Sweet Satan." She also told us that Ozzy Osbourne killed kittens onstage during his concerts, that KISS was an acronym for "Kids In Service to Satan" and that the initials "AC/DC" stood for "Anti-Christian Devil's Children." It all seemed so silly, and I never understood how anyone could keep a straight face while shoveling such bull.
On the other hand, the first time I heard Mercyful Fate, I remember thinking, "Whoa. These guys might be the real deal." I was a few years out of Sunday school by that time, but if my old anti-rock teacher could have heard this band's tales of witchcraft, grave robbing rituals, and other Hammer Horror-esque spookiness, she probably would have had a coronary. These Danish demons cast a looming, occult-fueled spell over the heavy metal underground of the early '80s, and though it's been twenty years since their last studio album, their influence still lingers to this very day.
"Doomed By The Living Dead" (1982)
So Who Was Mercyful Fate, Anyway?
Mercyful Fate was formed in 1981 out of the ashes of two Danish hard-rock bands, "Brats" and "Danger Zone." Their melodic metal sound, powered by guitarists Hank Shermann and Michael Denner, picked up where the classic vibes of early Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, Scorpions and Deep Purple left off, but the band's ace-in-the-hole was lead vocalist Kim Bendix Peterson, soon to be known better by his stage name, King Diamond. The King's multi-octave vocal range, outspoken support of Satanism, and ghoulish stage makeup (he looked like the demonic love child of Alice Cooper and KISS) made Mercyful Fate stand out from the pack, visually and musically. The King's dramatic vocal style and frequent use of his trademark high-pitched falsetto made metal fans and critics alike sit up and take notice.
Mercyful Fate released their first four track EP on the Danish indie label "Rave-On" in 1982, which contained the classic tracks "Nuns Have No Fun" and "Corpse Without Soul." Roadrunner Records picked up the band for 1983's full length debut Melissa, which made its way to U.S. shores thanks to MegaForce Records (home of Metallica, Anthrax and other young metal heroes of the day). American metal heads (this writer included) were instantly entranced by the doomy "Black Funeral" and the eleven-minute epic "Satan's Fall." The band's profile was raised even further when the Melissa track "Into the Coven" was cited by Tipper Gore's would-be censorship group, the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) as one of the so-called "Filthy Fifteen" songs that kids should be protected from. It was official, Mercyful Fate was on a roll.
The Rise...and Fall
Melissa was good, but 1984's Don't Break The Oath follow up was even better. Not only was it Fate's heaviest, most powerful work thus far (just check out tracks like "A Dangerous Meeting," "The Oath," or "Come To The Sabbath" for proof), its cover is one of the most iconic album artworks in heavy-music history. Nothin' screams "METAL!" from the record store rack like a big ole flaming Satan on your album cover! Mercyful Fate supported the album by touring the globe with bands like Motorhead, but just when it seemed like they were poised for a major breakthrough, MF announced their split in 1985. The sudden breakup was apparently due to disagreements between Shermann, who allegedly wanted the band to pursue a more commercial direction, and Diamond, who wanted to keep Fate on the left hand path. King took the songs that he had been writing for the third Mercyful Fate album and released them in 1986 as his solo debut. Fatal Portrait kicked off a long and successful solo career for Diamond, who went on to release a string of now-classic horror concept albums like Abigail, Them, and Conspiracy.
"A Dangerous Meeting" (1984)
Metal fans around the world rejoiced when Mercyful Fate reunited, seemingly out of nowhere, in 1993 with all of the original members except drummer Kim Ruzz. Their third studio album In The Shadows was a welcome return to form that even featured a guest appearance by Metallica drummer and MF super-fan Lars Ulrich, who played on the album's final track "Return Of The Vampire."
On a personal note, I was lucky enough to see Mercyful Fate live in New York City on Halloween night 1993 while they were touring for In The Shadows. They were the perfect band to spend Halloween with and put on an amazing show!
Diamond, Denner, and Shermann kept Mercyful Fate going through the '90s with replacement drummers and bass players. Even at the height of the grunge-rock era, albums like 1994's excellent Time and 1996's fine Into The Unknown flew the flag for old school devilish metal. Amazingly, King Diamond also managed to keep his solo career going alongside his Mercyful Fate duties during this period; in 1996 and '98 he released albums by both projects in the same year!
1998's Dead Again was the first Mercyful Fate album without Michael Denner, who was replaced by Mike Wead from King's solo band. This arrangement would continue on the next year's 9, Mercyful Fate's last album to date. It was around this period that my interest in MF began to wane, because as far as I'm concerned, Mercyful Fate's signature sound was created by the combination of the Shermann/Denner guitar team and Diamond's vocals. With a new guitarist in the mix, the special "something" that made MF seemed to be missing. I suppose that Dead Again and 9 are both decent enough albums in their own right, but to me they've always sounded more like King Diamond solo efforts.
"Is That You, Melissa?" (1993)
Where Are They Now?
King Diamond's most recent solo album, Give Me Your Soul... Please, was released in 2007. He was forced to put all of his musical activities on hold in 2010 when he suffered cardiac problems that required emergency open-heart surgery, but he returned to the concert stage in 2012.
Hank Shermann has appeared on more than a dozen albums with numerous post-Fate projects including Force Of Evil, Gutrix, Virus 7, and most recently, Denner/Shermann, which reunited him with his old partner Michael Denner.
Mercyful Fate have never officially announced a breakup, and whenever they're asked about MF in interviews, the band usually says that they are merely "hibernating." Reunion rumors circulated in 2009 when King, Denner and Shermann re-convened to record new versions of two classic MF tracks ("Evil" and "Curse of the Pharaohs") for the Guitar Hero: Metallica video game (in which King also appears as a playable character!) but nothing materialized.
The patience of Mercyful Fate's worldwide coven was finally rewarded in August of 2019, when MF announced that they will reunite for several European festival appearances in the Summer of 2020, starting with the "Copenhell" festival in Copenhagen. The lineup for this run of shows will be almost the same as the last studio album, 9 (King Diamond, Hank Shermann, Bjarne T. Holm, and Mike Wead) with the addition of bassist Joey Vera of Armored Saint fame in place of Sharlee D'Angelo.
The band promises that these special shows "will very much be Mercyful Fate as we were at the very beginning," and that the set list will "only consist of songs from the first Mini-LP, the Melissa album, and the Don't Break the Oath album, plus some brand new songs written specifically in that very same style."
Come to the Sabbath and raise your horns, infernal legions, for the Demon Bell will sound again in 2020!
© 2018 Keith Abt