Mercyful Fate: Melissa (1983)

In 1983, Ozzy’s “Crazy Train” was dangerous.

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.

Others felt the power, too.

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.

I still remember popping the cassette into my cutting-edge technology, high-fidelity, portable cassette stereo.

Side One

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…”

Early Mercyful Fate: Michael Denner, Timi Hansen, King Diamond, Hank Shermann and Ole Frausing.

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.

Side Two

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

Swedish band Ghost are heavily influenced by Mercyful Fate and Blue Oyster Cult. Could we ask for anything more?

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.)

Black Sabbath: Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1974)

Welcome to Black Wax Reviews. Our tagline is “Nothing New”, and we mean it. If you’re looking to read reviews about albums that have been out forever and have been reviewed a thousand times already, or that you haven’t heard of and might not even deserve to be reviewed, then you’re in the right place.

We’re going to start out this blog with a masterpiece: Black Sabbath’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.

Let me just start out by saying that when I was a kid and I first heard this, I wasn’t impressed. It’s taken me decades to figure out why, but I finally get it. It wasn’t that Sabbath was too HEAVY for me… it was that the jazzy ‘in-between’ parts weren’t heavy ENOUGH. Back then, I simply did not know how to make sense of those sections… for all I knew, it may as well have been country music slipped in between the cool heavy stuff.

And for that reason alone, I abandoned Sabbath. (Ozzy-era Sabbath, anyway. Mob Rules would change my life just a few short years later. But that’s another story.)

Well. No longer. Now, some 33 years later, it’s time to give this album its due.

The needle drops on Side One and we hear the title track, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. Instantly we can tell that although Tony didn’t have access to the amps  that we have today, he was tearing it up. He was probably using an Orange 1972 amp w/ 4×12 cab on this album. So many of the awesome guitars of the day are still highly valued today, including his Gibson SG’s, which have become his signature trademark.

I will say that a video of Heaven and Hell (the band with Dio, not the album) in 2009 shows him still jamming with an SG, but with an updated sound that rivals any of today’s bands. (Check out Tony’s sound on 8/29/2009: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iqMyEalm-JI&feature=related.)

Flashback: When I was 12 and I got a turntable for Christmas and my stepdad let me dig through his LP’s, there was a reason simply couldn’t get into this album. Looking back, I figured it was simply too heavy for me. (At the time, I was listening to a steady diet of KISS root-fifth power chords.) But in retrospect, I can see that what turned me off from this album wasn’t its heaviness. Rather, it was the jazzy, laid-back feel of the choruses (like on the title track) that sent me running away covering my ears.

Even the words “Oh, he sits around listening to Black Sabbath” conjure up visions of heaviness, but a heaviness laden with boredom, simplistic thinking, and… let’s face it… stupidity. But one careful listen reveals the exact opposite… the title track, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, really has a lot more going on than the opening heavy riff might lead one to believe.

Once the chorus hits, things mellow out for a moment, and there’s jazz in the air. Some really complex, kick ass jazz. Then, before you know it, we’re back into the heavy stuff, and we’re on to verse 2. Pretty genius, in this reviewer’s opinion. Oh yeah, and back then, Ozzy could REALLY hit those high notes. Nice. I’ve heard Bruce Dickinson cover this in the modern era, with modern equipment, etc. As great as he is, just can’t compare to the original.

Track 2: A National Acrobat. Awesome riff.

Track 3: Fluff. Pretty. It’s always fun to put on that track for dinner guests who don’t know me very well and ask them to take a guess. Coolest thing ever is how they closed “Live Evil” with that track.

Track 4: Sabbra Cadabra. A love song about a woman. Trippy. The piano in there almost gives it a rock and roll feel. How did they do it? Somehow, Sabbath become synonymous with All Things Heavy… but listening to this, there is so much tasteful, un-heavy music happening.

SIDE TWO

Track 1: Killing Yourself To Live — Not to beat a dead horse, but those old tube amps being overdriven just really sounds good. Funny how Ozzy’s singing about all these positive things… yet this album was catching such a bad rap. “Just take a look around you, what do you see? Pain, suffering, and misery…”

Track 2: Who Are You — Okay. State-of-the-art technology happening with the synths. Whatever. Still sounds cool. Creepy, slow, and menacing. Main riff is based on the tri-tone (diminished fifth), which, of course, was (and is) a staple of heaviness. “The devil in music.” And then in the middle we have a pretty huge, gorgeous-sounding section. Stately. Orchestral, even. Then, back to creepy. I love it.

Track 3: Looking for Today — Cool snare thing going on there. Up-tempo, and rocking. Flute. Oh yeah… Tony was in Tull there for a little while, in the beginning. You can check him out on the Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus. Tull as a band is lip-syncing, but Ian is actually singing and playing his flute. And standing on one leg. And I guess Tony’s really playing, though we’re hearing the backing track, instead of his actual performance. Turns out the Stones didn’t have enough time for Tull to rehearse, so had them lip-sync. Oh well… still highly recommended. And it ‘s the only video of Tony with Tull. Reason enough to check it out.

Track 4: Spiral Architect — Sweet acoustic beginning. (King Diamond/Merciful Fate actually stole that one for their track “Sleepless Nights”, off of the album Abigail. Pretty sweet. I don’t blame them for stealing it.) Chorus is awesome… if you check out the vocal phrasing on the chorus and compare it to that of later Ozzy (“Over the mountain”), you’ll see some striking similarities. Like, carbon copy. But then again, I don’t blame Ozzy for nicking his own stuff… it’s damned good.

Spiral Architect chorus:

Of all the things I value most of all
I look inside myself and see my world
And know that it is good

Over The Mountain chorus:

I heard them tell me that this land of dreams was now
I told them I had ridden shooting stars
And said I’d show them how

The sweetest part of all, though, is the closing of Side Two, with the fake applause and then the reprise.

When I was 12, I couldn’t handle this album, because I needed something heavy. Like KISS. These days, I see that the laid-back parts simply make the heavy stuff even heavier. Sabbath Bloody Sabbath is a masterpiece from start to finish. There simply are no weak tracks on this album. It could not be any more perfect than it already is.

Sabbath Bloody Sabbath rating: 10 stars out of 11