The Devil's Music?
Even as a kid, I was always skeptical of religious types who called rock n' roll "the Devil's Music." I once had a Sunday school teacher who claimed that playing Led Zeppelin's "Stairway To Heaven" backwards would reveal a demonic voice calling out to "My Sweet Satan." She also told us that Ozzy Osbourne killed kittens onstage during concerts, that KISS was an acronym for "Knights In Satan's Service," and that the initials "AC/DC" stood for "Anti-Christian Devil Children." It all seemed so silly, and I never understood how anyone could keep a straight face while shoveling such bull.
However, the first time I heard Mercyful Fate, I thought, "Whoa. These guys might be the real deal." If my old anti-rock teacher had heard this band's tales of witchcraft, grave robbing, Satanic rituals, and other 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 more than twenty years since their last studio album, their influence still lingers to this day.
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, which featured 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 epic 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!
Just when it seemed like they were poised for a major breakthrough, however, 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 was determined to stay 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.
Metal fans around the world rejoiced when Mercyful Fate suddenly reunited 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."
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.
King Diamond was forced to put all musical activities on hold in 2010 when he experienced cardiac problems that required emergency open-heart surgery. Thankfully he made a full recovery and returned to the concert stage in 2012. His next solo album, The Institute, is slated for release in 2023.
Hank Shermann appeared on more than a dozen albums with his 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 never officially announced a breakup, and whenever they were asked about MF in interviews, the members usually responded that MF was merely "hibernating."
Reunion rumors began circulating 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.
It appeared that the patience of Mercyful Fate's worldwide coven would finally be rewarded in August of 2019, when MF announced that they would reunite for a series of European festival appearances in the Summer of 2020, starting with the "Copenhell" fest in their home base of Copenhagen.
The lineup for this run of shows would have been almost the same as on their last studio album, 9 (Diamond, Shermann, Bjarne T. Holm, and Mike Wead) with the addition of bassist Joey Vera of Armored Saint/Fates Warning fame replacing original bass player Timi Hansen, who sadly passed away in 2019 after a long battle with cancer.
The band promised that these special shows would "be Mercyful Fate as we were at the very beginning," with a set list "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."
Unfortunately it was not to be, as the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the cancellations of live music performances around the world.
The Demon Bell finally sounded again in 2022, as Mercyful Fate embarked on their first tour in more than twenty years, and by all accounts, they are absolutely killing it. A new MF album, which is shaping up to be "very old-fashioned" according to King Diamond, is reportedly in the works as well. Welcome back!
© 2018 Keith Abt
Joe Cogan on October 24, 2018:
Excellent article and really nice song choice with "Is That You Melissa?".