THIS MONTH IN METAL No. 5: Mercyful Fate’s “Don’t Break The Oath”

The Legacy

“I deny Jesus Christ, the deceiver” shrieks a piercing falsetto and you instantly know you’re going to hell.  It’s okay though, because while Satanism and the occult is a common fad in metal, few have ever made it so delicious.  This September marks the 35th anniversary of the righteous descent that is Mercyful Fate’s Don’t Break the Oath.  Oath is not only a fantastic record that still burns bright, but a heavily influential game changer that defines a milestone in metal history.  Put on your cloaks, folks.

Original 1984 cover art by Thomas Holm. Photo: Genius

It goes without saying that the 1980s was an incredible time in metal.  While not every  subgenre was formed, per se, a good majority was in full bloom. An explosion of exploration came from the groundwork laid by classic groups like Sabbath and Priest in the 70s, leaving room to spread in seemingly any direction from glam to thrash, death and progressive metal.  I could digress for pages on end, but this isn’t a critical lesson in subgenres only to be meticulously picked at by metal nerds.  No, this is simply about the awesome power of evil!  Mercyful Fate had a fairly short run during their early glory days from around 1981-1985.  Don’t Break the Oath was only their second and last full-length release before disbanding and/or changing acts.  Though short, their first run set fire to the metal genre releasing only classics.  Dripping with Satanic imagery and lyrical content, they were a raging force to be feared.  With a musical style reflective mostly of classic heavy metal of the 1980s, their progressive and stylistic edge could not be mistaken for anyone else.  One such defining trait is the heavy falsetto ruler of metal, vocalist King Diamond.

Vocalist King Diamond of Mercyful Fate. Photo: Mercyful Fate

Yes, there are other falsetto metal singers, but King owns it without a doubt.  Adorned in a cape and stage makeup, shrieking into a cross made of leg bones and accompanied by a real human skull whom he named “Melissa,”  we see the birth of a character only occult heavy metal could bring.  The band King Diamond, titled after Satan knows who, would form soon after Mercyful Fate’s first but not last run, focusing more on horror stories in an abundance of concept albums.  During his Mercyful Fate days and particularly his writing on Don’t Break the Oath, it was all about spitting on the cross, seducing the pure away from Christ and signing pacts with Satan.  What people had much mistakenly accused of shock rockers like KISS and Alice Cooper was actualized by King’s image, sound and lyrics.  While admitting to the band’s outfit as a theatrical act, King held true the metaphorical liberation of his message as a LaVeyan Satanist.  Mercyful Fate can even be grouped into the first wave of black metal, not so apparent in sound but so much in spirit that their contributions cannot be ignored.  Oath could be described as the Mercyful Fate album, holding the quintessential spirit of that juicy evil sound in a grip that’ll smack you in the mouth if you don’t shout “HAIL SATAN!”

The Oath

35th anniversary tribute artwork

The Oath

One thing that Mercyful Fate really gets is the essence of old school occult material   Don’t Break the Oath distills occult pulp imagery into a raw yet distinctly theatrical sound.  I’m talking everything from horned beasts to nuns gettin’ naked in classic satanic panic fashion.  Much of this work you see before you is inspired by two tracks that I feel best capture the album’s spirit: A Dangerous Meeting and The Oath (duh, if you saw what I titled the work).  Both have obvious themes of blasphemy, but particularly initiation.  Every time I listen to Oath I get the urge to light some candles, put on a cloak and have some Satanic ritual fun.  Fire, skulls and hooded figures with knives are more than cliche when it comes to the subject, but it’s all about celebration.  Mercyful Fate didn’t create occult imagery, they celebrated the showmanship of it.  And of course, King just loves those nuns.  Being a huge fan of the nunsploitation genre myself, this was definitely a self-indulgent opportunity to initiate a sinful nun into a pact with the Devil.  Lastly yet perhaps most obvious to fans, I designed the metal framework and black cloak after King’s iconic makeup, my personal favorite in the vast world of corpse paint.  I hope that with my illustration, I can inspire you folks to get just as evil as Don’t Break the Oath did on September 7, 1984.

See more heavy hitters in the MONTHLY METAL GALLERY

Uhh… Hail Satan I guess.

–NCM

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