By the mid-1980s heavy metal had become a legitimate global phenomena, and like any other counter culture, when its appeal stretches too far, it simply becomes culture. At this point there was a clear distinction between heavy metal artists who made no secret of their aim to garner as much fandom as possible – the much maligned glam rock movement for instance – and a genuinely underground global fandom and work-ethic infrastructure. Straddling the middle, were the older heavy metal bands of the 1970s like Judas Priest, desperately trying to stay fresh, caught between watering their music down to heavy rock in order to compete with younger artists in the charts and pandering to the much smaller yet dedicated audience of the purists.
At the outermost limits of the underground movement some truly other worldly music was being created. Venom may have introduced a generous helping of theatrics into their dark and hard take on NWOBHM, but even the most dedicated follower knew deep down that this was for show. The disparate artists from around the globe that immediately followed quickly took the best of this whilst shedding the comedic wink to the audience, this would be the blueprint for the darker side of metal to follow. The interesting thing about foundational black metal works is that they were not born of a scene or a movement. Artists unaware of each other at the time all settled on a similar aesthetic, yet the various styles of these artists were still distinct enough that it is only after the event that we would group them under the first-wave-of-black-metal umbrella. At the time they were just distinct artists creating what they called extreme metal.
Comparing Sodom’s debut EP with Mercyful Fate’s second full length may seem a little unfair, but 1985’s ‘In the Sign of Evil’ is such a pivotal EP for the history of extreme metal that it simply cannot be ignored. Sodom are now known as one of three great pillars of Teutonic thrash along with Destruction and Kreator, but they started life as a very primitive dark thrash band akin to Celtic Frost, although somewhat faster and more musically adept. There’s no way to dress this statement up however, the production is truly awful. The drums are flat, the guitars are deep and murky, the vocals go from a barely audible growl to overpowering everything around them. But such unintended mishaps of presentation were fast becoming a cornerstone of extreme metal, a badge worn with pride by artists and fans alike, an easy marker of distinction from the polished radio friendly metal gracing the charts.
The speed, the primitive powerchord riffs and tritone play, the distorted vocals, the relentlessly fast drums; all of this almost calls to mind a horde of barbarians emerging from the woods ready to storm the unsuspecting villages of normality. Early Sodom may not have been as dark as Bathory, or as influential as Celtic Frost, but the dark energy of this music permeated extreme metal to follow with a much needed sense of triumph. It is this celebration in the negative that was to prove to be the missing ingredient from the music of their contemporaries. And this is why the analogy with barbarism is particularly fitting; this outbreak of evil is not just some occult terror wreaking havoc upon the world as inevitably as a force of nature. There are actual people behind this havoc, witches, necromancers, warriors, people twisted out of our cultural mores beyond recognition, alienated by a domesticated world, left behind, discredited, they have come out the woods to seek vengeance and chaos, and they are enjoying it. Extreme metal at its best is not simply fixated on negativity but on celebrating it. This is one of the first releases of extreme metal to be worthy of the name, but at the same time it was joyful, making us feel like this movement had something more to say for itself beyond a total rejection of domesticated sonic territory occupied by lesser beings.
Merciful Fate, as far as this era of extreme metal goes, could not be more different from Sodom. There is no other way to put it, but the music of this Danish outfit is nothing short of neoclassical heavy metal. I say neoclassical because there is a very fluid, narrative structure to much of this music. These musicians had a talent for riffcrafft well beyond many of their peers which lent a certain dynamism to this otherwise very traditional heavy metal. The position 1984’s ‘Don’t Break the Oath’ has earnt itself in black metal history is for similar (although arguably more legitimate) reasons to that of Venom’s ‘Black Metal’. This is very well crafted heavy metal, but King Diamond’s relationship with the Church of Satan gave this music more underground credentials than it would superficially be due.
As a result the philosophy of Satanism permeates King Diamond’s lyrics throughout this album. There is a certain degree of conceptual unity found under the title theme ‘Don’t Break the Oath’: questions are raised of faith in something not when it is easy but when it is challenged, and the trails we must undergo to surmount these challenges. We find ourselves once again presented with music that is asking more of us than rebellion; it was trying to found or align with an alternative philosophy to the mainstream, and it has consequences for the listener far beyond taste in music or simply belonging to a subculture. If Sodom approached this question as Dionysus, Mercyful Fate did so as Apollo.
Of course it would also be impossible to talk about ‘Don’t Break the Oath’ without mentioning the vocal style. The banshee scream of King Diamond is now iconic. It took the metal crooning of Rob Halford and Bruce Dickinson to another level, holding notes in the falsetto range throughout the course of the album. To some it sounded like he was aggressively clutching his balls throughout the album, to others it was a truly demonic take on a classic technique.
Despite the wildly different approaches of these two pieces, one can hear the music of both ripple through the ages. Sodom’s early output was to be a key influence on the primitive underbelly of black metal, the dark, fast punky, grindcore-infused side, exemplified by Beherit, Impaled Nazarane and Blasphemy. And musically speaking the influence is much more direct and obvious than that of Mercyful Fate to the point where some forget why we name these Danes as early black metal at all. But the fact is, Emperor, Dimmu Borgir, Absu, and any symphonic black metal artists owe a debt to Mercyful Fate, one step further along the neoclassical route away from verse/chorus structures, one step further down the road of serious theatrics, a commitment to a superior artistic experience. These two releases, contemporaries of each other, are two sides of the same extreme coin. One is literally a step further than predecessors in terms of extremity; the other is an extreme take on traditional heavy metal. In terms of music prowess and flare, ‘Don’t Break the Oath’ is by far the superior release. But in terms of music that shines well beyond its means – production, musical ability, or what we have come to expect from dark thrash metal – Sodom is the more surprising work, and punches well above its weight given its runtime. Looking back, it was to prove to be an important 20 minutes of music in the history of extreme metal.