You usually need to know a fair amount about Metal and the history of Metal to fully understand absolutely every point I will make, and having listened to the album yourself will also help. If you don’t have a clue what I’m writing about but still wish to read, having a tab open on Wikipedia to intermittently check anything you don’t understand, as well as a tab open on Grooveshark, Youtube or something Spotify-esque to check any musical reference points you haven’t heard will help too.
The album which I will be discussing in this entry is Don’t Break The Oath, the 1984 sophomore album by the Danish band Mercyful Fate.
I have very little knowledge of or experience with Mercyful Fate beyond knowing the fame and influence of their first two albums. I know that they were hugely influential on a number of important Thrash and Black Metal bands, that they get filed in with the first wave of Black Metal bands by many people and of course I constantly see them in lists and countdowns of great must-hear metal albums.
I also know that their singer King Diamond wears Kiss-like make up, has an inverted cross on his head, and had a solo career that featured the classic albums ‘Abigail’ and ‘Them.’ I haven’t however, ever knowingly heard a single one of his songs with the sole exception of a few seconds featured in the movie Clerks 2.
Come to think of it, I also know that Metallica cover at least one of their songs on Garage Inc. but I have never really listened to Garage Inc. properly so that isn’t much help either really. The reason I decided to finally give the band a shot was primarily because I had heard three tracks off of their debut album Mellisa earlier this year, which promptly put Don’t Break The Oath on my to-do list.
Even before having heard those tracks tough, I had been curious about this album for a few years now. If I haven’t heard any music on an album, the three main ways in which I will become curious about something are striking artwork, appearing in the aforementioned lists, or strong friend-recommendation. Don’t Break The Oath ticks the first two of those boxes, so perhaps if any of my friends had been singing its praises I would’ve given it a chance even sooner.
On first listen, one of the most noticeably things is that the production isn’t exactly absolutely amazing, it’s the kind of thing people would call wind-tunnel all too easily. The sound is a little muddy and there is a lot of reverb on every little thing. I also think the vocals are surprisingly low and far back in the mix. The songs would sound a whole lot heavier and more impressive in my opinion with a slightly drier, bassier and less reverby production.
The overall sound of the band is pleasing though; big, pure classic metal makes up the most part of the verses in opener ‘A Dangerous Meeting’ with some thrashy riffs, some intricate staccato playing and a lot of melodic lead guitar work filling out the rest, as well as a few gothic touches like church bells mixing things up towards the end.
‘Nightmare’ reminds me of the first four or five Rush albums, in terms of how the track is structured and I also think you can really hear the influence it had on things like Master Of Puppets’ song structuring.
I am not entirely sold on King Diamond’s singing based on the first two tracks. I quiet like a lot of high-pitched singers, some effeminate singers and some singers who have an operatic approach to the vocals. King Diamond combines all these things, but somehow not the parts I like. He mixes the sillier sounds of early Jon Anderson and Freddie Mercury, the cheesier side of Rob Halford and Bruce Dickenson, the times when Paul Stanley goes a little too far and the too-young over-reverbed sound of James Hetfield, Tom Arya and Dave Mustaine on all of their debuts.
Normally, a combination of any of those types of voice would be a sure fire formula for me liking a singer, but for some reason he hits upon the exact little touches that occasionally cause me to doubt singers I otherwise love. Part of this is due to Diamond himself, and part of it comes down to the production again. The use of vocal-manipulation here on such an early record is something akin to Cliff Burton’s bass guitar on ‘Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth)’ – I guess it was innovative, but it just enjoyable isn’t for me personally.
When tracks ‘Desecration Of Souls’ and ‘Night Of The Unborn’ lay into a bit of a lower pitched and higher tempo sound, I really enjoy it. It’s the sort of NWOBHM/Proto-Thrash sound that you hear on a lot of albums between 1978 and 1984. Side Note – I always think NWOBHM is a bit of an unfair genre title since it only allows a band to count if they are British, which I guess is why a lot of people now prefer the term Traditional Heavy Metal, and why most bands from the NWOAHM got rebranded Metalcore when bands from all over the world started playing similar music.
The seven minute almost-title-track ‘The Oath’ reminds me partly of the three self-titled Overkill tracks that Overkill had across their first three albums (as well as ‘E.vil N.ever D.ies’ from their fourth album that really fit that profile as well, save for the title) as well as the songs ‘Where Eagles Dare’ and ‘Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son’ by Iron Maiden. This is not to say it sounds all that much like any of these tracks exactly, but it shares a certain energy and “feel” with them.
Part of that could lie in the mixture of prog tendencies and Traditional Heavy Metal music but another part of it is in how the drum-fills work. Iron Maiden and Overkill both liked to use a particular type of drum-fill that would come off of the toms and into a double stroke on the hi-hat, and it comes up a lot in this track too.
‘Gypsy’ with its disco-esque drum beat and eastern tinged scales sounds to me like a bizarre mixture between Dio’s ‘Egypt (The Chains Are On)’ and Kiss’ ‘I Was Made For Loving You’ and it could possibly have been the inspiration behind Entombed’s excellent ‘Evilyn’ track. It also has a strangely catchy stadium rock chorus that is atypical of everything I’ve heard on the album thus far. The lead guitar work on this track is absolutely inspired and is a definite highlight of the album for me.
From then on, the album carries on in much the same fashion I would expect having heard the first half already, with the exception of the brief ‘To One Far Away,’ which is a minute-and-a-half guitar showcase that mixes shimmering arpeggios with electric leads in much the same format as Thrash Metal bands liked to include on albums, such as Annihilator’s ‘Crystal Anne’ and Forbidden’s ‘The Parting Of The Ways,’ as well as the during intro to just about every opening track on a Thrash album between 1986 and 1989.
Overall, Don’t Break The Oath was pretty enjoyable. It took almost up to the album’s conclusion for me to adjust to King Diamond’s voice and the production job, but that is just something that one would become accustomed to on repeat listens. I really enjoyed the majority of the album, and its early Traditional Heavy Metal feel with hints of Thrash in it type sound was really what I was looking for. I am glad that despite the linear notes Description of Mercyful Fate as Black Metal the record didn’t sound too much like either Sodom’s Debut or a Mayhem/Darkthrone album, just due to my own personal preference.
I’ll gladly listen to this again. And maybe I’ll even grow to like King Diamond, who knows ?