Masters of the macabre
Music, Myths & Legends
By Martin Vengadesan
OF all the rock stars I’ve ever been alone in a room with, none has scared me as much as the Danish wild man King Diamond. I don’t mean to imply we were ever alone together, but if you should be foolish enough to listen to Diamond’s works in a dark room, I’ll bet that his obsession with the dark side will get to you. Some of his albums are virtually aural horror movies. The man himself is certainly bizarre.
Kim Bendix Petersen spent his teenage years obsessed with hard rock music and football. After a brief spell with the Danish semi-pro league, he decided to put his multi-octave vocal range to good use. After finding his feet in a couple of amateur bands, he met the guitar-wielding Hank Shermann and Benny Petersen, who shared his vision of a Danish answer to the new wave of British heavy meal headed by Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Motorhead and Saxon in the early 1980s.
Petersen’s unique vocal range, visual image (garish make-up that borrowed liberally from the ideas of Peter Gabriel and Gene Simmons), and explicit interest in the occult powered the new band’s gothic metal. He called it Mercyful Fate and declared himself King Diamond (KD). With Shermann, Benny and the powerhouse rhythm section of Timi Hansen (bass) and Kim Ruzz (drums) in tow, Petersen set about crafting a strange theatrical band of metal.
After putting together a series of early demos (released years later as Return of the Vampire) Mercyful Fate replaced Benny with Michael Denner and began to make its name as a top notch-live act. The band gained recognition opening for the likes of Uriah Heep, Gillan, Girlschool (it claimed to have placed a hex on the group’s lead singer after she fell ill!), Manowar and Motorhead.
Its first official release, 1982’s The Mercyful Fate EP, is still regarded as a classic of its genre. With dense pieces like Doomed by the Living Dead and A Corpse Without a Soul, Mercyful Fate (and specifically King, as lyricist) left no doubt as to its fascination with dark themes. However, unlike predecessors Black Sabbath and Judas Priest, who laughed off “accusations” of Satanism, KD was said to be a worshiper of Beelezeebub! But he guarded his privacy fiercely and this added to his malevolent mystique.
The raw, fist-pumping, dark and yet strangely melodic metal of Mercyful Fate continued to catch on with fans of the fledgling metal scene. Each year, it produced a new work of stature. It was hard to top 1983’s vicious Melissa (with Curse of the Pharaohs and the medieval-inflected Into the Coven standing out), but Mercyful Fate did, with Don’t Break the Oath (1984), now hailed as one of the truly great heavy metal albums of all time.
Dripping with classy songs such as A Dangerous Meeting, Gypsy and Come to the Sabbath, the album was a watershed in European metal, even though Mercyful Fate was still no more than a cult band. It was at this point that conflicts over the group’s future direction came to a head. So after Shermann left, KD decided to disband and form a new group, named after his own persona.
With Denner and Hansen still on board, and guitarist Andy La Rocque adding fuel to the fire, the new King Diamond had a sound that was distinctly more polished than Mercyful Fate’s blood and guts riffage. Its incisive metallic sheen was obvious, primarily because KD was allowed to indulge his penchant for concept albums. Alongside a string of great singles like The Candle, Halloween, No Presents for Christmas (surely the harshest Christmas single ever), this group cut a series of ferocious concept albums like Abigail (1987), Them (1988) and Conspiracy (1989).
While the last indicated that KD’s song-writing was running dry of inspiration, the cinematic nature of the albums ensured that the band’s place in heavy metal Valhalla was safe. While many groups have recorded heavier, louder material, few tried KD’s brand of horror-metal rock operas. (The Italian group Devil Doll’s 79-minute single track album, The Sacrilege of Fatal Arms, probably comes closest.)
In the early 1990s, KD’s eponymous group was affected by internal divisions and problems with the record company Metal Blade, and the prolific artist was briefly reduced to releasing stop-gap compilations. Thankfully, he more than made up for this period of relative inactivity when he initiated a reunion with his old Mercyful Fate mates. In fact, for much of the last decade, KD has alternated between touring and cutting albums under both banners.
The latest King Diamond album, The Puppet Master (2003), shows that KD is still ploughing the same lyrical field. There is little doubt that he has been overtaken in pure intensity by the emergence in the 1990s of death metal, speed metal and black metal groups. The likes of Norweigan metal rockers Mayhem made KD look positively tame when its lead singer, Dead, killed himself, and its bassist Count Grishnackh stabbed guitarist Euronymous to death!
Nonetheless, there is barely a metal band out there that does not owe a debt to the true masters of horror.