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This is my second favorite King Diamond release (my favorite being Fatal Portrait), not only because of the musical prowess on display here, but also because of the story's topic. The opinions of the author of this album in regards to religion have been known to me for more than 12 years, so one would surely ask, what would a guy who is a student of Thomist theology and a once a week church attending Catholic be doing listening to the music of a member of the Satanic Church. Well, to explain it I must quote Saint Thomas Aquinas himself, "The test of the artist does not lie in the will with which he goes to work, but in the excellence of the work he produces."
King Diamond's little tale here, in terms of historical perspective, is a more mystical/horror based take on the story that is presented in "The Da Vinci Code". Although historical evidence of the nature of the events discussed in both the story and this album are lacking, one would have to take some things into account when considering the possibility of this. Pontius Pilate was, according to Gospels themselves, taken aback by Jesus and may well have had the motive (especially considering his desire for political expediency) to create a show crucifixion where Jesus may have been replaced with a body double. The problem is that the means to do this would have been difficult as you would have had to find a double convincing enough to fool Jesus' own mother in order to accomplish this. But despite problems with the historical aspects of these stories, they do make for good reading and a believable work of fiction.
The music on this release is probably the most diverse and well conceived that King Diamond and Andy La Roque have ever come up with. The opening track has a quasi-Middle eastern sounding tinge to it, as does the mini-epic rocker "Catacombs". You have more classic sounding rockers like "The trees have eyes", "The Pact", "Black Devil" and the quasi-Judas Priest sounding "This Place is Terrible". Meanwhile, songs such as "Goodbye", "A Passage to Hell", "Just a Shadow" and "Follow the Wolf" have more progressive elements to them, and also some dramatic vocal performances. "Help" is, without a doubt, one of the most insane vocal performances I've ever heard. And we also have a rather beautiful instrumental to close the album, provided by La Roque, which has some rather odd sounding ambiences at the very ending.
One particularly interesting aspect of later King Diamond material, particularly the post-Them era has been the use of atmospheric devices to aid in setting the album concepts. On earlier works, keyboards were often used sparingly at the intros (if at all), and acoustic/clean electric guitars were not often to be found. On this album, we find both Diamond and La Roque doing some rather impressive keyboard work, in addition to a rather believable choir of wolf howls on track 3. Stand out atmospheric tracks include “Upon the Cross“, “Follow the Wolf”, “House of God”, “Help”, “A Passage to Hell”, and the outro.
Now as to the lyrical content, the story has some rather interesting philosophical themes at play, issues of love and judgments made on a code of values. Many reviewers on this page have focused on the issue of religion, but I think that this merely scratches the surface of what is something a bit more down to earth. One of the beliefs held by the Satanic Church (I am well read in their doctrine, which may surprise many) is that of egoism, of taking both accountability for one's own self and reaping the rewards gained. The problem for this doctrine is that they have many contradictory inspirations, particularly that of Ayn Rand and Nietzsche. And, ironically, the former seems to have been fully embraced while the latter is only briefly touched upon. Ironic in the sense that most followers of the church tend to focus more on Nietzsche's irrationalism and more emotion based sense of morality rather than Rand's rational egoism.
SPOILER ALERT! (Don’t read the next 2 paragraphs if you wish to discover the story for yourself).
The main character, whom finds himself in the situation of choosing between allowing his new found love to die or to sacrifice his own life to save her. This brings many questions of personal morality and values, particularly the value judgment of how to see the one you love. Unlike the collectivistic love for all humanity at the expense of yourself that often paints the views of more political idealists in the metal movement, this take on valuing others is highly egoistic, in the post-Aristotelian sense. Dying for one person who you couldn’t see yourself living without is, in fact, a highly self-motivated and self-centered act. However, it is also among the most moral and most human of acts, and this is where I can find some sympathy for the views of this particular member of the Satanic Church.
The issue of the main character’s demise is obviously a further extension of Diamond’s rational egoism. When you have discovered that the religion that dominates humanity is a lie that continues to infect the earth with mindless destruction, and that you have the choice of either dying or continuing to live and forced to serve it, there really is only one moral choice. We also learn, by the words of the main character before he hangs himself, “Father of the universe, here I come!”. Before I heard this album, I had different ideas about King Diamond’s beliefs on such issues as metaphysics, but it appears I had greatly under-estimated him. This indicates a very Deistic take on religion and God, one that reminds me a bit of such enlightenment thinkers as Voltaire and Thomas Jefferson. Most of these thinkers, ironically, took their Aristotelian influences from the writings of Aquinas, Magnus, and the other Dominican thinkers of the 13th century, the same ones that have influenced me.
In conclusion, this is a highly significant work of art, by my own personal aesthetic and ethical estimation. It is one of those few metal albums where I can grasp into the morality argued within the lyrics and identify with it on a very high level. The best way to describe it is as post-Enlightenment/Ayn Rand style rational egoism, surrounded by an amazing canvass of keyboard ambiences, ghostly vocals, thudding drums, and driving guitar lines. Some may argue that the rating I’ve given this album is way too high, but I think this is a highly under-appreciated and often misunderstood album. I recommend it highly to fans of metal, of all genres contained within, this is an album that deserves your undivided attention.