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As EPs go, this one has garnered quite a lot of attention. As opening statements go, that is slightly underwhelming, but you may understand my lukewarm tone in a moment, when I try to convince you that this has a few problems rather than being close to perfection as many have suggested in previous reviews. The reason why Mercyful Fate’s first official release has attracted so much interest is basically because it is somewhat of a milestone and the kicking-off point for a band of almost unparalleled reputation in our world. I would like to forgo the history lesson, but it’s necessary: go ahead and compare this to other heavy metal releases from 1982 and tell me that this isn’t a step ahead both in terms of ideas and execution, such as the audacious vocals, the mysterious tone of the riffs, and the darkness of the lyrics, not to mention the glory of the leads.
Essentially, Mercyful Fate was a release that took everything just a step or two further than the likes of Iron Maiden, Angel Witch, and Satan, who were a little safe in comparison to this bunch of Danes. That is empirically evident from the intense screeching of King Diamond’s vocals on the opening song, the dirtier riffing on ‘Doomed by the Living Dead’, plus the excess of the concepts and themes. The four songs on this EP range from good to great, with ‘A Corpse Without Soul’ probably taking the pick due to its excellent structuring and irresistible riffing, while ‘Nuns Have No Fun’ is the weakest effort, not attaining the same distinctive character as the others. Plenty has been written in the other reviews about the riskiness of the style, the memorability of the songs, and the majesty of Hank Shermann and Michael Denner playing leads until your jaw gets gravel burn from its constant contact with the ground. I don’t want to rub in those elements, so please assume those things are already said and let me branch off in another direction.
One of the issues with Mercyful Fate as a historical entity is that they have been associated with the rise of black metal. While it’s true that their prominence has advanced the instances of Satanism in metal and King Diamond’s facepaint rubbed off on the Norwegians, there is much more to tie this release in with power metal or even hard rock. The power metal part isn’t an issue in itself, especially considering that Mercyful Fate actually precedes the European power metal movement, but it’s more the fact that Diamond’s vocals are mostly high-pitched here and occasionally horribly so, such as on ‘Devil Eyes’, where he just keeps screaming the title at dog-whistle level. You could also tie the lead work into power metal, though that is harmonically balanced and doesn’t cause any pain, whereas I just can’t enjoy Diamond’s contribution at times. The reason why I have the words hard rock in this paragraph is because ‘Nuns Have No Fun’ is distinctly not the same style as the rest of the release, using chord-based riffs for part of the time and a fairly typical NWOBHM guitar line for the refrain, operating on a kind of thuggish uptempo Judas Priest strut that can’t offer much until the lead breaks kick in and Diamond sounds like the real deal on the “Nuns have no fun, they just have their fathers and sons” verse.
The end result of those mixed styles is that you are likely to become either distracted, frustrated, or both by the collisions between different ideas, since there are things that don’t mix well at all. That ranges from little things, such as the opposing moods of the backing vocals and the lead vocals at the beginning of ‘A Corpse Without Soul’ to the big things, for example the juxtaposition of the aforementioned opener’s creepy, speedy rush with the tepid hard rock that immediately follows it on ‘Nuns Have No Fun’. It’s up and down in that sense, nor does it add to the drama, though there is the argument that Mercyful Fate were essentially adding to several genres with each new song and each new riff. The part that disappoints me the most is the tendency of the band to overdo some of the great elements, such as that attention-seeking solo that opens the EP and Diamond’s vocals that are sometimes just too much. Just to show I’m not a sour bastard though, I'd like to mention that his scream at the end of ‘A Corpse Without Soul’ is just fucking perfect.
What that leaves us with is a mini-album full of ideas, most of them excellent but some of them misdirected, resulting in an exciting experience though not a fully satisfying one. Some bumps in production and vocal gymnastics would be sorted out before the Melissa full-length the following year, while the awkward meeting of styles would take until Don't Break the Oath to settle down. Some may say that the rawness and unpredictability of Mercyful Fate adds to its cult charm, but for me it undermines the high level of technical prowess and dreamily perfect sections that do exist here. However, even bearing that in mind, it would be stupid not to listen to it, since it really is quite good.