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Critical perspective 5: Disorderly satanic ZZ Top - 83%

gasmask_colostomy, April 15th, 2018

Maybe you're going to ask why I have to be such a dick, but I think it's time for Melissa to get a thorough once-over just to prove that she's not the ten out of ten hottie that metal fans all claim. I mean - look at those teeth for starters. But seriously, there are some objective problems with all of Mercyful Fate's early work despite its high quality and influential nature. I have already done my best to turn a critical eye on King Diamond's vocals and the falsity of claiming that Don't Break the Oath is anything approaching black metal (something that TrooperEd very convincingly argues about this album), so for Melissa I turn to other issues, such as song structuring and the issue of guitar styles on some of the songs here.

Admittedly, I didn't like Melissa very much on my first few listens, something that also happened with my experience of Don't Break the Oath, though that was more down to being my first taste of King Diamond and having to get used to his vocals. The reason I struggled with this album is because I found it (and still find it, if anyone's asking) old-fashioned and, in places, plodding. A part of that is down to the production, which is certainly a product of the early '80s, drums thunking about unthreateningly at the bottom of the sound and guitars used gently, with plenty of reverb and not much distortion on a slightly bass-heavy tone. As such, the riffs on this album are a far cry from the "occult" tone that can be attributed to 'The Oath' or 'Nightmare' from the following album, while even sections of 'A Corpse Without Soul' from the debut EP contained more atmosphere than 'Curse of the Pharaohs' or the especially coasting opening of 'Into the Coven'. Compared to influences like Iron Maiden or Angel Witch, there is little to choose in terms of darkness and heaviness, even allowing 'At the Sound of the Demon Bell' hard rock riffing to kick off and a kind of ZZ Top groove at 1:15, which goes awfully together with Diamond's feminine wailing of "Rise...rise...rise...it's Halloween". I don't know about you, but the words "hard rock", "ZZ Top", and "feminine wailing" don't really suggest that this is evil music.

A critique like this would, of course, ignore the other moments when Mercyful Fate definitely were able to sound evil. Generally, the moments when the pace picks up towards the close of 'Evil' and 'At the Sound of the Demon Bell' are much more convincing manifestations of the lyrical aesthetic, not to mention the tense riffing of 'Black Funeral' and 'Satan's Fall'. The slightly unusual scales used at these points do move away from the traditions of contemporary NWOBHM, the former song ending up a much darker Venom-ized version of 'Gypsy' from Don't Break the Oath (though not quite approaching that song's brilliant catchiness), while the latter is Fate's most ambitious epic and certainly the most troubling cut from Melissa. The part that is troubling in the manner of "my mum just shat herself" is the down-tempo atmospheric riffing that begins at 0:47 and renews itself a minute later with Kim Ruzz dropping tense drum fills as Diamond gives his best impression of a soul in peril, which was just about the most chilling metal song ever written until proper extreme metal came along a few years later.

However, the other reasons why I want to discuss 'Satan's Fall' at length are less flattering to Mercyful Fate. Not to discount the quality of any of the sections of the 11 minute song, the classic melodic riffing at 4:20 and the similar solo that follows totally breaks the mood of the innovative haunting guitars, while it's no stretch to call the structure of the song diabolical, though sadly not in the way that you'd be hoping. I count no fewer than nine instances where the band start a new section with the joins showing through and the transition poorly managed, which smells a bit like laziness, especially if they were going to the effort to make an epic with all those atmospheric riffs. Granted, a few of the sudden changes in direction come off well, particularly the storming riff that opens the last section, yet the fact that the song totally restarts at 7:53, then nicks a solo from Iron Maiden (it's 'Strange World', which everyone else steals as well) tarnishes what would otherwise be hands down the best piece of the album.

The other songs are mostly excused from the starkness of transitions, but that doesn't make the structures totally perfect, many of them opening in the gentler "hard rock" style I pinpointed earlier and then developing into (vaguely) occult heavy/speed workouts as they head towards crescendo. That the song 'Evil' is actually relaxed for most of its juncture totally works against the lyrics that Diamond is singing about how his "only pleasure is to hear you cry" and that he "will eat your mind", which makes the presence of a great ballad (the title track) much less of a worry by comparison. Despite the lightness of 'Melissa', the storyline and suitable emotion make it more than just a success - it's a classic. It might also be worth mentioning that 'Curse of the Pharaohs' might well be a neat example of backwards influence, since it starts with a similar riff to '2 Minutes to Midnight' and contains Egyptian themes, which sounds an awful lot like what Iron Maiden were doing...the following year, in 1984. If they heard this in '83, London's finest stand guilty as charged.

What I've been trying to say throughout this critical review is not that Mercyful Fate made a sucky album with Melissa, but more that this definitely doesn't sound like people tell you, which is not really the band's fault, but certainly part of the reason I'm left feeling disappointed. However, it also isn't a consistently great album (as I feel Don't Break the Oath to be), with several poor stylistic choices, some extremely awkward transitions in 'Satan's Fall', and - depending which camp you fall into regarding King Diamond - possibly some annoying vocals. The reality is that Melissa takes form as a slightly more evil and slightly more forward-thinking heavy metal album than the big guns were simultaneously producing, though without some of the editing and production capabilities those larger bands had. I'll end on a positive note though and say that the cover is one of the downright coolest in all of metal and Melissa one of the greatest personages, with a backstory much more interesting than Eddie's.