Formed in Denmark in the early 80's, Mercyful Fate achieved near legendary status almost immediately after the release of Melissa, the bands' first full-length release. Led by their face painted frontman King Diamond, the band was one of the pioneers of Death or Black Metal. Aptly named, death metal's theme focused on more morbid topics, frequently with a satanic theme.
Feared by parents and despised by bible-wielders, Diamond wrote about topics that scared people half to death. He didn't just write about death or Satan, he wrote about Satanism, sacrifice, grave defiling, and cemetery births. People couldn't believe what they were hearing. Not only was the subject mater scary, but he sang these songs in a voice that ranged from strident growls to falsetto highs. Astute lyrics about the occult and stage props that included a human skull and a cross constructed from bones made Mercyful Fate quite famous, despite their short initial life span. Mercyful Fate disbanded after their second album, and Diamond continued on to a solo career, still maintaining that he was a practicing Satanist. In the early 90's the band re-formed, and since then Diamond has split time between the two projects.
Quite frankly, many bands in this segment are hacks. They pretend to be skilled at their instruments, and write completely brainless lyrics. This has never been the case with Mercyful Fate. These guys can flat out play. Fate's latest release, 9, continues with this tradition. Lyrically, Diamond continues with the dark themes, but has progressed beyond the shock-oriented, over-the-top story lines of the past. Diamond still writes about the devil, but he approaches the subject from a seemingly atheist perspective. His stories are still dark, but have developed into what I'd call "mini horror stories."
Musically, the band sounds even more solid now than they did on the early albums. Founding guitarist Hank Shermann still provides much of the musical direction, with Diamond taking the music credit on the remainder of the tracks. Dueling guitars are everywhere on this album, with Sherman and fellow guitarist Mike Weed trading solos on nearly every track. Drummer Bjarne Holm is simply outstanding - his performance is one of the best I've ever heard.
There aren't many slow spots on this album, but there are a few worth mentioning. "Church of Saint Anne" drags a bit, but Shermann and Weed toss out some great solos, so overall it's an enjoyable song. Lyrically, "Sold My Soul" is a bit tired. It's a theme that we've all visited frequently in the past, but Diamond adds another twist. The protagonist of the story admits he sold his soul, but the real rub is that he sold YOURS too! Bummer, eh? The music on "Sold My Soul" is excellent. It's one that begs to be played at high volume.
The title track is surprisingly boring, not typical for an album's namesake. "I am 9, we are 9" Diamond repeats throughout the track, a possible reference to the 9 circles of hell as defined in Dante's Inferno. Still, "9" is a creepy song, and it really makes you wonder if Charon the boatman might select it for mood music as he ferries the damned across the river Styx.
9 is a solid, thoroughly enjoyable release, and fans of the genre should enjoy it as much as I did. If you find yourself singing Debbie Gibson while strolling through the office, you'll probably want to look elsewhere.