Riding in the back of the school bus to gym class on a steamy April morning in a little backwater town (population 5,000) about an hour outside Austin (before SXSW, before the overpass, before “an hour outside Austin” meant “the suburbs of Austin”), turning up the portable cassette player and blasting this song would definitely raise eyebrows among the preps, the FFA kids, and the jocks. Reinforcing the fact that we were misfits. Outcasts.
Some of us attempted to straddle both worlds, running track, participating in drama, and wearing multiple alligator shirts with parachute pants, but also wearing heavy metal concert jerseys as often as possible. Others of us were summarily (and unfairly) judged as burnouts and losers on the path to destruction. Hearing us blast “Crazy Train” only cemented these beliefs in the heads and hearts of the coaches, school counselors, and bus drivers who watched us in the oversized rearview mirror, shaking their heads. “He ain’t worth pissin’ on.*” Somehow, that gave us a sense of power. We were flying our freak flag high, to borrow from the hippies with their ‘stones tongue’ tshirts, bell bottoms and bad haircuts. (*Actual quote from a highly respected school official at the time, speaking to members of the local high school football team in reference to a future Black Wax Reviews staff member who happened to be walking by.)
Maiden’s “Number of the Beast” felt like outright blasphemy for those of us raised Catholic… for those of us who, against all odds, still tried to have some faith in that system. But we’d seen badness. Divorce. (Resulting in excommunication from the church.) Abused mothers. Booze. Some stepdads who were cool; others who were not. In many ways, the ground beneath our feet felt like it was crumbling. Defying an omniscient, omnipotent being in the sky with a long white beard to strike us down for listening to Maiden felt empowering somehow.
The first time I popped in my “Mob Rules” cassette while riding around in my preppie friend’s little yellow Datsun pickup, he looked at me with confusion in his eyes. “It’s so HEAVY!”, he yelled over “Turn Up The Night,” not quite sure whether he liked it or not. I reveled in that moment for months.
If we were giddy with joy over the power of these bands, you can imagine our profound astonishment upon discovering Mercyful Fate’s Melissa. Here was a band that took things two steps further. They didn’t just use heavy distortion. They didn’t stop at making indirect references to beezlebub. Nope. They stuck it right in everyone’s face, and proudly, too. “Hail Satan,” King Diamond screamed, and I was simultaneously terrified and excited. If ever there was the power to make people step back, this was it, I thought.
Evil. Machine gun blasts of heavy guitar open the album, followed by some harmony guitar stuff. Then King Diamond (Kim Bendix Petersen, degree in chemistry) comes in with what was to become his signature falsetto scream. The sound of the drums. The bass. The mid-rangey, nasal tonal quality of the overall album. The creepy photos… obscured faces… who WERE these guys? We didn’t know. But we knew that they were blasting us out of our chairs. “Evil” was a kick in the chest in every way for me. I wasn’t sure whether to rip the tape out of the player and throw it away, or rewind and play it again louder. I opted for the latter.
Curse of the Pharaohs. More laid-back opening, guitar, with drums kicking in not long after. Then vocals. Some serious gallop-picking, which Maiden was also making very popular, but at the time sounded new and fresh. Crazy guitar solos… spiky, fast, and spooky-sounding. (Years later I would learn that those were actual scales that even normal guys like me could play, with a little practice.)
Into the Coven. Oh yeah… that sweet intro, all majored-out, like the intro to Metallica’s “Fight Fire With Fire” on Ride the Lightning. Very classically inspired. And maybe even a little bluesy, with that bend toward the end… then the main theme kicks in, and things are not so happy anymore. Dang. Even 29 years later, this is heavy. Even though I still can’t really understand the lyrics without the benefit of the googles, it kind of doesn’t matter. I still just fake it and sing along with my fake, made-up words. Then the sweet, laid-back breakdown at 2:32. King Diamond’s harmonizing with himself, then the razor-sharp solo. Second solo. Harmony solo. Fourth solo. These guys knew how to put together a really heavy song! Then back to the main theme. And another solo. I stood in front of the bedroom mirror for hours rocking the tennis racket. And in my pre-pubescence, I really felt like I was rocking those falsetto vocals rather well.
At the Sound of the Demon Bell. Cool beginning. Lots of double stops. Kind of an uplifting chord progression to begin with, from I to IV. Then, when the vocals kick in, sheer evil. Of course. And holy mother of god, those chorus vocals were so sweet. And then the time signature change. “If you don’t believe, then see for yourself…”
At this point in the song (1:52), it becomes my duty as an Official Black Wax Reviewer to point out the direct and unabashed ripoff from Sabbath’s “A National Acrobat” (Sabbath Bloody Sabbath). Okay, maybe “ripoff” is a bit melodramatic and overly harsh. But without a doubt, this section had to have been “strongly influenced by” Sabbath’s tune. I mean, come on. (Still, if you’re gonna be “strongly influenced” by anything, Sabbath’s not a bad bet.) Thundering double bass and crazy soloing. More time signature changes. These guys never quite cross into ‘prog rock’ territory… no 5’s or 7’s or anything like that… just the occasional switch from 4 to 3. Still very effective. At 4:57 we get a certifiably kick ass change into the closing section, where we shift from full-throttle, balls out cranking to a laid-back, spacious groove. Then back again. Wait. I lied. If we include the extra little repeat thing in there, we can call that 5/4 (or 10/4). Then the final gallop home for the last three seconds. Pure bliss.
Black Funeral. So this one was the source of many jokes among our friends… “Bring the black box to the altar…” “Then set the black box down on the altar…” “Reach down and unlatch the lock on the black box on the altar…” “Lift the lid…” okay, you get the point. Over-the-top lyrics. But then at 0:41, with King’s falsetto vocals at the beginning of the chorus, we could never help ourselves. We had to sing along. Absolutely kick-ass changes; the arrangement is really genius. Each part is built on a really solid riff. Even if the vocals kind of border on the silly from time to time (through my eyes/ears today). Then crazy soloing and a sudden ending that makes me feel like I’ve just driven off a bumpy gravel road and over a cliff.
Satan’s Fall. From the opening drums/guitar solo to King’s frantic vocal phrasing, this song is just an explosion of energy. Slows down at 0:48 for a stoner rock groove punctuated by King’s upper-register screams (he hits at least a G7, for you fellow keyboard geeks) then right down to a guttural “with blood-stained wings”. And right back up to where he was three seconds ago. If he made a deal with some evil entity, like cashing in his soul for vocal prowess and fame, I’d say he did pretty good. (Well, until he dies, anyway.) Gorgeous wall of vocal harmonies at 5:28. They’re all King, and man, does it sound good. At 5:52, we walk through a doorway into what sounds like a whole different song. Heavy groove punctuated by crunchy muted guitar strokes that slowly take us through the paces of yet another creepy chord progression. A fantastic contrast to the pelting hailstorm we’ve been subjected to thus far. A nice aural break, of sorts, with groaning bass in the background making things creepy as ever. You know that scene in your favorite slasher movie, where things are quiet and you know the evil dude with the hockey mask and the chainsaw is right behind that tree over there, but the cute girl in the high heels and the ripped prom dress doesn’t know it, and is slowly stumbling through the woods right toward his hiding place? That’s what this sounds like.
Oh, and the classic and oh-so-subtle lyrics,
“Craniums high on stakes
It’s Satan’s epigraph
Something you can’t erase… 666
They call him the beast”
One of the coolest parts of this song is at 7:52, when it ends. Or so we think. After an apparent ending (crashing cymbals, definitive closing chords), we get a moment of complete silence. “Oh, the song is over.” Then clean guitar, nice and sweet, with the vocals, “Innocent lovers, it’s a lie.” For better or worse, the dude really knows how to construct a chord with his multi-tracked vocals. Very sweet. Then the fast part. Then the crazy solos. Finally, around 11:25, things wind down and die. And it’s time for their coup de grace…
Melissa. Beautiful opening guitar part. (Factoid: I learned how to play this opening rhythm part and wrote my own lyrics to it; a cheesy love song. Then played it for girls in college and told them it was about them. Didn’t actually gain me anything, but I tried.) Awesome, creepy vocals. Drums. Nice and slow; half-time feel. Then, at 2:12, things get heavier, but not faster. Not yet. Vocals die out… quiet, then clean guitars come in with a 3/4 time signature. Solos over vocals. Back to the initial 4/4 theme. And into the galloping thing, the amazing hi-hat work and ride cymbal bell. Slows down again. Like way down. Solo. ‘Leave for a cup of tea and come back’ slow. ‘The hell were they thinking?’ slow. And for quite awhile, too. Some cool drum fills in there, though. Bass playing way up high on the neck. Then the best, most delicious outro ever… back to the 3/4 part, desperate vocals (“Melissa? Can you hear me? Melissa? Are you there?”) Then clean guitar with vocals for the final drop of the curtains.
“I think Melissa’s still with us…”
While the Black Wax Reviews team is divided on the lyrical content (some of us love it, others of us aren’t really into it), we all agree this is about as close to the perfect metal album as you can get. It was true back in ’83 and it’s still true today.
Rating: 10.5 stars out of 11. An almost-perfect record. (Minus 1/2 point, just in case there IS a God.)