Mercyful Fate

Don't Break the Oath/Return of the Vampire

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The second in a pair of excellent Mercyful Fate two-fers released by Roadrunner Records, Don't Break the Oath/Return of the Vampire is similar to its predecessor in that it couples one of the trendsetting metal band's proper albums with an album-like collection of rarities. The proper album here is Don't Break the Oath (1984), undoubtedly Mercyful Fate's masterstroke, and the rarities collection is Return of the Vampire (1992), a surprisingly strong collection of 1981/1982 demos that were the basis for the band's forthcoming albums. If you're new to Mercyful Fate (and many surely will be, given the band's brief, underground existence yet prolonged, infamous legacy), this two-fer is a recommended place to begin, especially when coupled with its complement, Melissa/The Beginning (this pair of two-fers should be all the Mercyful Fate you'll ever need, unless you really like this band, in which case there's a whole second phase of lesser recordings from the '90s). Don't Break the Oath is beyond doubt the one album you'll want to hear. It encapsulates everything amazing about Mercyful Fate, shedding light on precisely why this shadowy, short-lived band of seeming Satanists became such a cult phenomenon; it also laid the groundwork for what would evolve into so-called black metal a decade later in the band's native Scandinavia. Above all, the soaring, evocative vocals of King Diamond define Mercyful Fate. Though probably better known for his ghoulish makeup than his actual singing, this guy is right up there with Rob Halford of Judas Priest, capable of hitting notes higher than you can probably imagine, all the while singing operatically about dealings with the Devil. Backing him are dueling guitarists Hank Shermann and Michael Denner, who weave a web of metallic proto-thrashery, again, not unlike Judas Priest, clearly a prime influence, especially that band's late-'70s work. What makes Don't Break the Oath so standout, however, is its conceptualization as well as its richness. It plays as a whole, strewn together into a rambling Faustian quasi-narrative, boasting the best songwriting, musicianship, and production of the band's original run. The odds-and-ends disc, Return of the Vampire, rounds up a total of nine demos recorded over the course of four sessions dating from spring 1981 to spring 1982. Here you get embryonic renditions of "Curse of the Pharaohs" and "A Corpse Without Soul" in addition to outtakes and unreleased songs that would be reworked later. In particular, it's insightful amid "On a Night of Full Moon" to hear aspects of what would eventually become "Desecration of Souls," just as "Death Kiss" would evolve into "A Dangerous Meeting." Moreover, this two-fer also features tasteful packaging and includes some substantial liner notes by Ed Rivadavia, who paints a grander picture of what makes these two albums so worthy of reissue. And one last thing: though the music of Mercyful Fate will probably sound dated and perhaps even ridiculous to contemporary ears, it's important to keep in mind that they operated during the early '80s, before the likes of Metallica and Slayer raised the bar for extreme metal; back then, this was considered extreme, especially the Satanic motifs the band wrapped itself in.

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