The birth of black metal: through the Mercyful Fate of our king

Lars Ulrich might be his country’s most valuable metal export, but will his legacy endure as long as Diamond’s?

With the rather dubious exception of Aqua’s ubiquitous late-’90s cheesefest ‘Barbie Girl’ – ranked number five on the list of ‘100 Worst Songs Ever’ by AOL Radio – Denmark is best known on the international music scene for producing one-fourth of Metallica.

As one of the best-selling bands in history, Metallica is a band nearly everyone is familiar with – both metalheads and non-metalheads alike. And even casual followers know that the man behind the skins of one of the world’s biggest bands, Lars Ulrich, hails from little old Denmark. More interested fans of the band probably likely know that Ulrich was – and in many ways continues to be – the driving force behind Metallica.

Long before Ulrich was a balding multi-millionaire known as much for his unpopular fight against music-sharing service Napster as his drumming skills, he was a young boy in Gentofte living an affluent life as the son of professional tennis player and jazz musician Torben Ulrich and mother Lone Ulrich. Shortly after the family left Denmark for Los Angeles in 1980, Ulrich and James Hetfield found each other, and the behemoth that would become Metallica was formed.

Black metal pioneers
Meanwhile, however, back in Copenhagen, out of the ashes of Danish bands Brainstorm, Black Rose, and Brats, another influential metal band formed in the shape of Mercyful Fate. While never finding crossover mainstream success, Mercyful Fate would come to be viewed among metalheads as one of the all-time greats.

In 1981, Mercyful Fate’s original line-up consisted of vocalist King Diamond (née Kim Bendix Petersen), guitar players Jank Shermann and Michael Denner, bassist Timi Hansen and drummer Kim Ruzz. With the band’s dark imagery – most famously King Diamond’s horror-inspired face paint – and subject matter, Mercyful Fate are widely considered one of the originators of the black metal sub-genre.

Inspired by Alice Cooper
According to rock journalist Joel McIver’s 2004 book ‘Justice for All: The Truth About Metallica’, the origins of King Diamond’s look can be traced to a September 1975 Copenhagen stop on American shock-rocker Alice Cooper’s first solo tour:

“It was Alice Cooper. I saw the ‘Welcome to My Nightmare’ tour in Copenhagen in 1975. Even though there wasn’t that much make-up … it changed him completely. He became unreal. I remember the show so well. I was up front – and I thought if I could just reach out and touch his boot, he would probably disappear.”

King Diamond’s theatrics, when combined with music heavier than that of Cooper, in turn paved the way for the legions of face-painted metal bands that dot the landscape today. It also subjected King Diamond and Mercyful Fate to accusations of Satanism, which Diamond addressed in ‘Justice for All’.

“[The Satanic Bible] doesn’t say to anyone, listen here, this is the right god and this is the wrong god,” he argued. “It simply tells you to pick and choose whatever makes you happy, because no-one can prove anything anyway. So if people say I’m a Satanist if I believe in the life philosophy in that book, then sure. But if they’re saying, do you believe that baby blood will give you extra energy; and you can conjure demons with it? Then no, I don’t believe in that.”

Creative peaks and differences
In 1982, the band released ‘The Mercyful Fate EP’, which was followed by their debut full-length album ‘Melissa’ the following year. Their early career path would often cross with that other (one-quarter) Danish band, Metallica, with the two sharing the stage on tour and Metallica working on some of the tracks for their 1984 album ‘Ride the Lighting’ at Mercyful Fate’s Copenhagen rehearsal space.

Shortly after Mercyful Fate’s release of the album ‘Don’t Break the Oath’ that same year, the band split ways with the blame being ascribed to the classic “creative differences”.
After the mid-80s break-up, King Diamond started his own band, creatively entitled King Diamond. The band has put out a dozen records since 1986. Known for their horror storytelling, some of the wicked tales even run across the span of multiple albums.

In 1992, in the midst of King Diamond’s (the band) career, King Diamond (the man) reunited with his former band mates and resurrected Mercyful Fate. Mercyful Fate then put out four more records before taking a hiatus after the 1999 release of ‘9’ so that King Diamond could focus on … King Diamond.

Not to be confused with …
If you think this is getting confusing, it gets worse. Running  parallel with the career of King Diamond (the man and the band) was the similarly-named British heavy metal band Diamond Head, a group that – like Mercyful Fate – shares a close history with Metallica. In fact, Diamond Head’s best-known song is most probably ‘Am I Evil’, due to the inclusion of Metallica’s cover version on their 1983 debut ‘Kill ‘Em All’.

Although neither Mercyful Fate or King Diamond (or Diamond Head, for that matter) ever obtained anything approaching the level of fame of Metallica, they have undoubtedly been helped along by their more successful brethren. Metallica’s 1998 release of covers and compilations, ‘Garage Inc’, included a song entitled simply ‘Mercyful Fate’, a medley consisting of five Mercyful Fate songs: ‘Evil’, ‘Curse of the Pharoahs’, ‘Satan’s Fall’ , ‘A Corpse Without a Soul’ and ‘Into the Coven.’

The medley was also included in the popular video game ‘Guitar Hero: Metallica’, introducing a generation of fans who think music is played with multi-colored buttons on a plastic guitar to Mercyful Fate. The game also features the original version of ‘Evil’, (as well as Diamond Head’s ‘Am I Evil?’) and in an ultimate nod of respect from Metallica, King Diamond appears as an animated character in the game.

King Diamond’s career, meanwhile, continues to go from strength-to-strength, despite having several heart attacks and needing triple bypass surgery in 2010. Just this year, he has headlined CopenHell and performed guest vocals on Volbeat’s new album, but perhaps his most fitting recent endeavour came at the end of 2011 when he appeared on stage with Metallica in San Francisco to help celebrate the band’s 30th anniversary.

While the face-painted, falsetto-voiced metal god now makes his home in Texas, the names King Diamond and Mercyful Fate belong in the discussion of famous Danish musicians alongside Lars Ulrich and yes, sadly, Aqua.