Sounds of the Demon Bell: Mercyful Fate’s Studio Albums Ranked

The first wave of black metal holds a very particular fascination for many. While the predominantly Norwegian second wave could look and sound a little samey at times (not to mention be problematic as fuck), the first wave of bands that came out in the ‘80s were more a vague grouping of bands with a similar vibe than a concrete scene sharing a specific sound. The tag brought together everything from the Satanic party rock of Venom, the weird pseudo-prog of Witchfynde, the gonzo punk metal of Sarcófago and the avant-garde experiments of Celtic Frost.

My personal favourite of these early bands is Denmark’s Mercyful Fate. Mixing NWOBHM twin guitars with proto-speed metal, a strong line in Alice Cooper-esque theatrics and King Diamond’s ear-piercing falsetto, the group created a truly unique sound. Their first two albums (not to mention the gloriously profane Nuns Have No Fun EP) were a huge inspiration on later bands, with their tales of Satanism and gothic horror going further than many bands at the time. Diamond’s onstage antics included sporting an early form of corpse paint and strapping an inverted cross made of bones to his mic stand, blazing a trail for the morbid imagery of Mayhem and Darkthrone

The band broke up after two albums in 1985, with King Diamond going on to pursue an even more theatrical solo career involving stage sets and concept albums about dead witches possessing children (sounds mad, is actually brilliant). By 1992 the band’s profile had risen massively, with shoutouts from the likes of Metallica, Slayer and Death, not to mention the Norwegian scene, and the band reunited to tour and record, releasing five more studio albums before disbanding again in 1999. 

Now the band are back yet again, with Covid-19 unfortunately putting paid to what would have been a packed festival season in 2020. With all their live shows rescheduled for next year, we thought we’d go through the band’s back catalogue to give you the definitive (in our not-so-humble opinion anyway) ranking of their studio albums from worst to best. [Writers note: I haven’t included the odds-and-sods album Return Of The Vampire because it’s not a proper album so do not @ me]

Into The Unknown (1996)

The band’s fifth album overall, and their third since reforming in 1992, finds itself at the bottom of the list purely down to the fact there really isn’t anything standout about it. It’s still a solid effort in everything that makes Mercyful Fate great, but it lacks the energy of the rest of their catalogue and, with the exception of the Lovecraft-themed ‘Kutulu (The Mad Arab Part II)’, it lacks any really interesting songs. Ironically it remains the band’s most commercially successful record.

Dead Again (1998)

Upon release in 1998, Dead Again proved to be something of a curveball in the band’s discography. Deciding to jettison the crystal clean sound of their previous reunion albums, they instead opted for a grimmer, heavier sound inspired by their thrash, death, and black metal disciples. Songs like ‘Torture’ and ‘Banshee’ are almost sludgy, while the thirteen-minute title-track finds them in epic doom territory. Not everything on the album works but it showed the band were not afraid to mess with their trademark sound.

9 (1999)

Arguably the band’s darkest record, 9 followed hot on the heels of Dead Again and retained the heavier sound, while also trimming away a few of the baggier elements. King Diamond’s Satanic and occult obsession was also very much back in the foreground on this record, with tracks like ‘Church Of Saint Anne’ and ‘Burn In Hell’ (not a Twisted Sister cover) oozing sacrilegious menace. 9 trumps Dead Again on the basis that it boasts a stronger set of songs and sees the band revelling in their new sound.

Time (1994)

A bona fide Mercyful Fate classic, the band’s fourth album finds them firing on all conceivable cylinders. Tracks like ‘Nightmare Be Thy Name’, ‘The Preacher’ and ‘Witches Dance’ are some of the catchiest riffs the band ever wrote, and the production is sharp and emphasises Hank Shermann and Michael Denner’s top-notch guitar work. As much as there are joys to be found in the albums that followed Time, the band haven’t released anything as powerful since.

In The Shadows (1993)

I would say don’t call it a comeback, but actually that’s exactly what it was. Following an eight-year split, In The Shadows came at a point when the band’s reputation was getting to borderline mythic levels and they needed to deliver to not let down their legacy. Thankfully for all concerned they did. While In The Shadows lacks some of the explicitly Satanic material of their earlier albums, it more than makes up for it with lashings of gothic horror. ‘Egypt’ is a masterclass in full-throttle atmospherics, while the likes of ‘The Bell Witch’ and ‘Legend Of The Headless Rider’ both dip into folklore to spine-chilling results. The album came at a time when both King Diamond’s solo career and the rest of the band’s other project, Fate, were both getting a little stale, so the fact that the reunion ignited the fire in all of them makes this album particularly special.

Melissa (1983)

When a band names the opening track of their debut album ‘Evil’, it’s very much a statement of intent. With that song Mercyful Fate laid down the blueprint for their sound. It’s an operatic slice of proto-speed metal that manages to stay just the right side of menacing without devolving into pastiche. ‘Curse Of The Pharaohs’, ‘At The Sound Of The Demon Bell’ and the title-track (named after a witch whose skull King Diamond apparently kept in his Copenhagen apartment) are all metal classics, and provided the lyrical foundation that dozens of extreme metal bands would later build upon.

Don’t Break The Oath (1984)

If Melissa was Mercyful Fate bursting into the world in a roar of hellfire, then their follow up, Don’t Break The Oath, was them establishing their infernal kingdom on Earth. Released in the same year as Bathory’s debut and Celtic Frost’s Morbid Tales EP, this album is the band at their blasphemous peak. Bookended by the witches sabbat double whammy of ‘A Dangerous Meeting’ and ‘Come To Sabbath’, every track on the album feels like a Dennis Wheatley story set to music. This writer’s personal favourites are the epic ‘Night Of The Unborn’ and the driving ‘Welcome Princess Of Hell’, but really the album is a complete piece, designed to be devoured in one sitting, preferably in a dark room with black candles burning on an altar.

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Words: Dan Cadwallader

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