With King Diamond coming to perform in Boston tonight at the Orpheum, I've been revisiting my old King Diamond and Merciful Fate albums.
King Diamond was an important part of my evolution as a young metal head. I progressed from hard rock like Guns N' Roses and Led Zeppelin to Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath and King Diamond before getting into much heavier stuff.
King Diamond was important to me because like Iron Maiden, he always had a penchant for strong melodies and story. He might wedge melodic lines in between some bitter chords but they are definitely there. And that fondness for real melody remained with me, even as I got into heavier things. Also being a guitarist, I think the neoclassical sound of Andy LaRocque's playing was a natural fit. His concept album approach, where he tells a complete story appealed strongly to the gamer in me (something about listening to Abigail or Them while preparing Ravenloft adventures just worked). I liked that storytelling aspect to his music and I loved that they were basically horror movies put to music (I was also really into Hammer Movies, old Universal Films and silent horror movies at the time).
My first introduction to King Diamond was Conspiracy, which is a sequel to his album Them. That was a bit of a confusing intro, since it resumed the storyline from Them, but the sound and concept approach really piqued my interest as a listener. However, it wasn't until I picked up Abigail, his second album, that I became a lifelong fan.
What was most striking to me was the melodies, particularly the stuff King Diamond did in falsetto (both in King Diamond and in Merciful Fate). If you've never heard King Diamond he is known for using a lot of different voices to bring characters in the story to life. His natural voice is more in the mid-range, but he mastered this shrieking falsetto that in my view no one has ever really been able to repeat to the same effect. And he used multiple tracks to, which allowed for harmonies on the vocals. He kind of oscillates between sounding like a Gremlin to sounding like a banshee. Anyone interested in getting a sense of the Merciful Fate or King Diamond sound should probably pick up the Dangerous Meeting Compilation. That will give a sense of the breadth of stuff they were doing.
The melodies and choruses in a lot of cases could almost pass for pop or even motown but with a slightly perverse and baroque twist. Tracks like Behind These Walls have progressions that sound like a Bonnie Taylor Song. This is even more obvious with some Merciful Fate material. It is oddly sweet and bookended around shrieking and jagged riffs. These moments come in flashes but they are apparent (in Evil, A Mansion in the Darkness, Shadows, Halloween, The Legend of the Headless Horseman, Father Picard, Gypsy, Into the Coven, Come to the Sabbath, No Presents for Christmas, etc). It is a strange combination of styles but it works. King Diamond is a master at crafting compelling melodies that stick in your head.
I discovered Merciful Fate after I'd been into King Diamond for a while. This was back when you really didn't have the internet to tell you everything about the bands you wanted to follow. There were fan zines and a few magazines (but most metal magazines I remember from the time catered a lot to more popular hair band acts). People also passed around tapes but that was mostly for bands you couldn't find at stores. For the most part it was word of mouth and looking through the shelves at the record stores. So at first I had no idea that Merciful Fate existed, and when I became aware of them (probably from posters or something), I didn't know King Diamond was their singer. However I learned about them at a good time because much of their old material was being released and they had an upcoming re-union album.
Merciful Fate is pretty similar to King Diamond's eponymous work except the guitar is a bit different and less concept material. It had many of the same members, including King Diamond, Michael Denner, and the bassist Timi Hansen. I think the primary difference in sound is the presence of Andy LaRocque in King Diamond, who added more of a Randy Rhoads sound to the lead. Merciful Fate came before King Diamond but he would re-unite with them and continue to release new material as he was also releasing solo work. Somehow I got my hands on their album, Don't Break the Oath. Soon after they released, A Dangerous Meeting, a compilation album of both King Diamond and Merciful Fate, and Return of the Vampire, quickly followed by In the Shadows (a surprisingly good comeback that I rank right alongside their first two records). I was hooked after that.
As far as metal goes, King Diamond is fairly light by today's standards (more in the vein of British New Wave Metal but a tad harsher). His themes were always on the darker side and occult. But for me it was the guitar work and the vocal melodies that drew me in.
As a teenager I played guitar in a death/doom metal band and while King Diamond was pretty far from that sound, and I had become interested in things heavier by that time, I still listened to a lot of his catalog (including the Merciful Fate material) because the riff work and the melodies inspired a lot of interesting ideas that gave us a more unique sound. A lot of the stuff I was listening to at the time was very heavy on the power chords, and the riffs tended to be power chord based, with frequent inversions and stacks. This is just a way of saying there were lots of harmonies and big, full sounding power chords. But that was pretty unwieldy and harder to do intricate riffs with because the stacked chords were big and the inverted power chords demanded careful planning. So I found by mixing it up with more of a Merciful approach to riffs (which is a better blend of smaller power chords and single note lines) I got a more varied and melodic sound. It basically allowed for moments of greater agility. For me this was a very conscious thing where I was trying to emulate their style.
So I am glad to see that King Diamond is coming to Boston tonight. My understanding is this concert will be devoted to his classic album, Abigail.