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There are two kinds of albums in the unholy underworld of evil metal. The first, the kind most associate with the genre when looking at it at a glance from a considerable distance, is that which takes it upon itself to bludgeon the listener with relentless, pounding walls of sonic annihilation woven out of tremelo/blast section abuse and the like. What we have here is not one of those albums. This is an album that takes a far different approach in delivering an atmosphere of evil. This is an album that evokes images of candlelit séances and demonic visitations from the other side, hearkening from times past, when steel ruled and Venom was still the world's most brutal band. This is Melissa, Mercyful Fate's first full-length release, an album that has survived to this writing without aging a day, no worse for wear. These seven tracks remain an icon in the metal world, and deservedly so, and anyone today that plays metal and claims to not have been influenced in some way by this album is lying to himself.
The album is eclectic in a way, showcasing all that had developed in the world of heavy metal up until its release. 1983, the year this unholy septet of malevolence was unleashed unto this mortal world, was situated in the center of a crossroads for the genre. The New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands, which heavily influenced Mercyful Fate, were known for melodic, over-the-top, theatrical performances, complete with operatic vocals and galloping rhythms, but the doomier side of metal, every bit as archaic, plodded alongside it in bands such as Black Sabbath, Pentagram, and Witchfinder General. Punk was taking the world by a storm, with its progenitors producing their seminal works at more or less the same time as the booming British metal scene. All these influences came together, resulting in a Cambrian-explosion-like expansion of the genre into subgenre after myriad subgenre. 1983 saw the release of many such meetings of influences, including Kill 'Em All and Show No Mercy, but across the North Sea from the British scenes that proved so integral in metal's development, in the underground of Denmark, something far more sinister was brewing.
Mercyful Fate formed in 1981 out of the ashes of the bands Brats and Black Rose. The five, still very much unknown at the time, procured a human skeleton with a wound on the skull, which they named Melissa. King Diamond, the band's singer, gave Melissa a detailed back-story, and this was to become an inspiration behind much of the album. The skull was used as a stage prop before it was stolen, and the femurs were tied together to form a microphone handle. Out of these dark, underground origins arose a masterwork named and styled after that skeleton, even down to its album art, a horned skull bleeding red light to the left edge of the frame.
With all their various influences, metallic and otherwise, Mercyful Fate managed to carve out a niche all their own. To this day, only a precious few have even come close to duplicating the stylings of King and company. Chief among these stylistic qualities, and the most divisive aspect about the band among its listeners, is King Diamond. His vocals carry much of the melody of the band, through piercing falsettos enough to give Halford pause, and a more traditional midrange, alternated in adept acrobatics in a style all his own. They maneuver swiftly and independently of the guitars, emulating tortured screams and malevolent growls wherever the King deems fit. The guitars, manned by the heavily blues-influenced Hank Shermann and the more shred-happy Michael Denner, show ample technical prowess in their twin onslaught a-la-Judas Priest, ripping along at furious paces at times, and at others becoming a slower, more atmospheric element. The rhythm section is solid as well, with Timi Grabber on the bass and Kim Ruzz on the drums. Overall the musicianship on the album is second to none, and each part meshes perfectly with the others into a cohesive whole.
Melissa is among those rare albums featuring song after song filled to breaking point of amazing material, so it becomes difficult to stand out. Nearly every track on display here is top-notch material. The opening track "Evil" is perhaps the single song that best defines the band, with its name even aptly and succinctly describing their sound. It runs a mostly mid-paced course, with some of the catchiest riffs in all of metaldom, and deliciously, cheesily evil lyrics about being raised up as a zombie to engage in acts of cannibalism and necrophilia, but explodes into a tornado of solos near the end. "Satan's Fall" is a monstrous epic, comprising about a third of the album's length, with a myriad of brilliant ideas thrown into its monstrous maw, and taking the listener into a Satanic blood sacrifice with one of the King's best ever vocal performances. "At the Sound of the Demon Bell" features every bit as schizophrenic a song structure as "Satan's Fall," transitioning seamlessly between staccato verse riffs overlaid with inhumanly high wails and various choruses and soloing sections. This song also includes the single heaviest minute of music on the album, enough to give the then-fledgling Metallica and Slayer a run for their money. Just about every song here is very strong in its own way. The only track that doesn't measure up to its cohorts is "Black Funeral," a short, plodding number with some of the highest vocals on the album. It's every bit as evil and blasphemous as the most perverse of the other six, but it is shorter and more one-dimensional than the others. Still it isn't a bad song, and it shows how liable something is to be brutally scrutinized when shoved into a track listing with such legendary numbers as the others. The seven together showcase the songwriting and performing talents of the band in a multi-pronged, atmospheric onslaught of riffs and blistering solos, providing blueprints for bands later on to derive inspriation.
On the other end of the aforementioned genre crossroads is the legacy of bands such as Mercyful Fate. As the genre expanded into more and more uncharted territory, and new subgenres were created left and right to categorize the ever-increasing variety of its acts, various traits of this band, and naturally this album, began to manifest themselves in thousands of bands so lucky to have the influence of Mercyful Fate. The theatrics and strong rhythm guitar would become staples in power metal, and the riff-laden breakneck guitar work would find itself duplicated time and time again by many a thrash metal band. The album's progressive tendencies, embodied most obviously in Satan's Fall, would influence the development of progressive metal. The aesthetics and atmosphere in King Diamond's corpse paint and human-femur microphone and the lyrical evil that was nigh unrivaled in its day would later reincarnate in the infamous Norwegian black metal scene.
As for the album itself, it deserves every bit of the acclaim it gets and more, and every aspect of it exudes classic status. Even the album cover is representative of just the fit and finish one would expect from a classic of this period. It is a look into the past, but retains every bit of the impact it has on its viewers regardless of the decade, much like watching 1973's The Exorcist. It is truly a product of its time, but at the same time is ageless, and the thousands of metal bands that have fallen entranced under its spell serve as testament to that. Melissa's fleshless visage stares you down, red aura of evil emanating from her eye sockets, skeletal grip reaching out for your soul, and you are helpless against her. Give the record a spin, light some candles, and hail the King.