Review Summary: Though not without its flaws, 9 is Mercyful Fate's darkest and most unique album to date.
Up until 9
, the quality of Mercyful Fate’s releases were gradually declining. In the Shadows
, released in 1991, started Mercyful Fate’s post-reunion career in fine fashion. The album, which contained progressive tendencies and King Diamond-esque lyricism, established a blueprint by which all following Mercyful Fate albums would abide. While each album tried its best to mix things up and bring something new to the table, no album was ambitious enough to break from the band’s formula. As a result, each release became more predictable and vapid than the last. Dead Again
may have seemed like the last nail in the coffin for Mercyful Fate, as the album was startlingly low on quality due to King Diamond’s creative slump and the absence of lead guitarist Michael Denner. With that being said, it was rather challenging to be optimistic about 9
, which succeeded Dead Again
by only a year. As it would turn out, however, 9
would end up being Mercyful Fate’s most successful output in since 1995.
The success of 9
can be mostly attributed to the album’s ambition. While Mercyful Fate’s post-reunion releases have never been devoid of ambition, the band had always played it safe, taking risks only when necessary and never changing their sound enough to the point where they might potentially upset their ever-diminishing fanbase. 9
presents itself as a complete overhaul on the band’s sound, and in most respects it truly is. Judging solely by the album’s gruesome cover and tracks names, such as “Burn In Hell” or “Sold My Soul,” one might expect 9
to be Mercyful Fate’s return to form. Although this album certainly seems like a throwback to 80s metal, it is not the return to form it was touted as. Classic Mercyful Fate releases, while incorporating elements of thrash metal (a genre they helped to create), were marked by a sense of progressiveness and often mid-tempo pacing. Short songs on the band’s 80s releases were few and far between, as songs would often break out into long, drawn out instrumental sections. The lead guitarists would harmonize with each other and play melodically during their solos rather than just shred to their heart’s content. On 9
, the band attempts none of that. While this may appear to be a disappointment at first, in 1999 a true return to form would have most likely been cringeworthy, given the circumstances. For example, the drawn out instrumental passages, such as those found on Melissa
’s “Satan’s Fall” or “The Oath” off of Don’t Break the Oath
, were a key element on classic releases. However, guitar solos on Dead Again
made it apparent that Hank Shermann and Mike Wead, Denner’s substitute, have no chemistry whatsoever when they play together. Rather than trying to recreate something that simply isn't there, Mercyful Fate cleverly omit melodic instrumental passages and utilize the skills of each guitarist, such as Wead’s ability to shred uncontrollably while Shermann riffs in the background. As a result, 9
has a sound far more akin to 80s thrash metal than classic Mercyful Fate releases. Furthermore, the songs have been made shorter and much faster, again emitting a strong thrash metal vibe. This stylistic change works in favor of 9
and gives it a distinct identity, separating the album from every preceding release.
Although atmosphere has always been a key component of Mercyful Fate releases, no album has ever utilized atmosphere as well as 9
has. The album has the darkest, most disturbing atmosphere of any Mercyful Fate album, arguably even moreso than Don’t Break the Oath
or the band’s self-titled EP. The intense atmosphere found on each and every song derives from the album’s lyrics and production. 9
sees the return of Satanic and occult-themed lyrics, which had been mostly absent since the release of Time
in 1994. While this style of lyricism was never completely abandoned, the fact that lyrics revolving around demons and Hell are back in full-swing adds an additional layer of darkness and evil to the album. Like its predecessor, the sound quality on 9
has been intentionally worsened to achieve an effect, similar to bands of the black metal persuasion. As a result, the vocals sound muddy and the guitar tone is distorted and raw. Although the poor production adds to the haunting atmosphere the band was clearly trying to achieve, it nevertheless hurts the overall sound of the band in the long run. The loudness of the guitars often overpower the other instruments, and the muddiness of the vocals make King Diamond sound weaker than ever. In addition, the vocals are often buried in the background while guitars blare in the foreground, occasionally rendering King Diamond’s vocals completely unintelligible. Although the messy sound quality works well with the songs’ Satanic lyrics, it ends up hurting the album in the long run.
being the best Mercyful Fate release in years, there are several factors that are detrimental to the album’s overall success. For one, this album has no shortage of filler. Short, generic tracks such as “House On the Hill,” “The Grave,” and “Burn In Hell” make for uninteresting listens, and have no memorability whatsoever. What hurts the album the most, however, is Mercyful Fate’s disappointing lack of musicianship. Although they sounds far more energized than previous releases, the members of the band simply do not put forth their best effort on this album. King Diamond’s vocals, while never particularly bad, are even weaker and more basic than they were on Dead Again
. The drummer puts forth only a minimal amount of effort over the course of the album, playing very basic drum patterns and deviating little from song to song. The bass makes occasional appearances, but is silent for the majority of the songs. In addition, the album’s poor production only make matters worse, as the drum is often obscured by the guitars and the bass seems to have been mixed out of most songs. Luckily, the guitarists end up being the album’s saving grace. Unlike the previous album, Shermann’s riffs never cease to be interesting, and are usually the catchiest parts of every song. Wead’s shredding during guitar solos make songs more intense and compliment Diamond’s shrieks and falsetto wails. Although Mercyful Fate are clearly not at the top of their game during this album, the guitarists are usually able to make up for most of the band’s shortcomings.
When deciding how they should handle 9
, Mercyful Fate most likely found themselves in an awkward place. Keeping their sound the same by sticking to their trite, overused formula would have proved disastrous, as it would have no doubt been a reiteration of Dead Again
, their least successful album to date. However, a return to form would have been laughable, as Denner was vital to their classic sound and most members of the band have lost most of their former glory. With that being said, 9
was an excellent way of finding middle ground. Despite its shortcomings, the album is a solid effort which proved that Mercyful Fate were still creative masterminds so many years into their career. Hopefully, 9
will not be the last we hear of Mercyful Fate. If it is, however, we can be thankful that they at least went out strong.