The unbroken oath

MERCYFUL FATE: Don’t Break The Oath

Release year: 1984/2020
Label: Roadrunner Records/Metal Blade Records

“I deny Jesus Christ, the deceiver/And I abjure the christian faith/holding in contempt all of it’s works /…/ I swear to give my mind, my body and my soul unreservedly/To the furtherance of our Lord Satan’s designs”. Had there ever been such explicit, serious anti-christianity in metal music before? Sure, bands such as Venom had already dabbled in rather explicit satanism, and already in the late 60’s Coven had adopted a very occult image, even performing faux rituals during their concerts. But this was different. This was the real deal. This was by a group who were – or at least the front man was – serious about the occult, satanism and anti-christianity. This wasn’t just surface, and this wasn’t the comic cartoon satanism employed by earlier groups. This really was the absolutely real deal.

This was Mercyful Fate at their absolute best.

Released in 1984, Don’t Break The Oath was the second and, for a long time, last album of the Danish group who had formed just three years prior. The body of material they released in that time has become iconic, and quite deservedly so. In many ways, Mercyful Fate were unique, and Don’t Break The Oath is the crowning pinnacle of their career.

Of course, the first thing you’ll notice on the album are King Diamond’s versatile vocals – the ludicrously high pitched falsetto wail, the demonic shrieks, and his general flair for the operatic and dramatic. They vocals are definitely an acquired taste, something you have to learn to like, but once you get over the initial shock and amusement, you start to discover he truly is one of the great frontmen of metal music, and one of its greatest storytellers. He knows how to imbue a sense of drama into his vocals, thus making the songs more than just four-minute heavy rock songs. They become mini-operas full of ghost stories, satanic rituals and haunting tales of terror.

Next you’ll notice Michael Denner’s and Hank Shermann’s twin guitar assault. Granted, Mercyful Fate never indulged in the twin-guitar fireworks that, say, Iron Maiden or Judas Priest or Thin Lizzy did, but there’s an abundance of killer riffs to be found on the album, classic heavy metal riffs that also lean towards the dramatic. If the guitar work on a track like Come To The Sabbath or album opener A Dangerous Meeting doesn’t send a small shiver down your spine, you’re probably not into heavy music.

But ultimately, what makes Don’t Break The Oath the stuff of legend is that there’s no one singular aspect that makes or breaks this album. It’s a mixture of King Diamond’s theatralic vocals and occult lyrics, Denner’s and Shermann’s killer guitarwork, and above all great, ambitious and even complex songs that consist of several parts but never fall apart. Where on earlier works it had been quite easy to spot influences from other bands, on Don’t Break The Oath the group firmly stand on their own two legs and don’t sound like anyone else. The dues had been paid, all the growing up had been done, and Mercyful Fate emerged fully formed.

It’s also one of those albums without a single bad track. OK, maybe the almost entirely instrumental To One Far Away is a bit redundant, but apart from that one very minor blemish, this album is song writing perfection. Already mentioned A Dangerous Meeting sets the tone for the album with its killer opening riff and eerie story of a seance gone wrong, and is bookended by a high point among high points, the ritual call of Come To The Sabbath. Other personal favourites – I’m going to refrain from listing the entire album here – include The Oath, quoted in the opening paragraph of this review, and the eerie Desecration Of Souls with its particularly evocative, gothic lyrics.

Posteriority often lumps Don’t Break The Oath as first-wave black metal. Of course, from the age-old definition of black metal being any metal music with a serious satanic message, the album is just that. But when comparing to other purveyors of the genre – Venom, Bathory, Hellhammer and the likes – this album is of an entirely different nature. Instead of straightforward, punked up, snarling viciousness, this is a sophisticated, intricate and skilled piece of classic heavy metal that owes as much to Black Sabbath and the likes as it does to then-contemporary NWOBHM and some of the more progressive hard rock acts of the 70’s.

It is a known fact that it irked the band to be grouped together with Venom, who the Danes saw as unskilled hacks compared to their own, theatralic and ambitious brand of metal. Apparently, King Diamond & co. did later settle this “feud” with Venom and have been on good terms for a long time already, though.

It is hard to over-estimate the impact Mercyful Fate as a band, and this album in particular has had on metal music ever since. Certainly this was a major contributing factor to second-wave black metal becoming what it was in terms of image and lyrical themes. But the Danes’ influence extends much further than that; it is not at all exaggeration to say that everything from the crudest black metal to the most intricate progressive metal, from the grimiest death metal to the most fantastic power metal has been impacted by this album.

In a very real way, this album is a nexus where countless subtypes of metal music unite, in the same way as old Venom is – but perhaps even more all-encompassingly than the snotty brits. It is quite interesting to see how selectively different forms of metal have taken influence from this album: black metal took the satanic imagery (down to the corpsepaint, one could say!), progressive metal took song structures, gothic metal adopted the ghost stories and theatralics, and so on.

There is of course only one score possible for an album of this magnitude and calibre. And quality: even if it were a forgotten gem fallen into obscurity, it would deserve a full five points. Luckily for the world of metal, it didn’t end up forgotten, but has continued to reverberate in the years since its release.

5/5

Visit Mercyful Fate on their official website, Bandcamp or Facebook

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