Review Summary: Hardcore fans who can overcome the album's terrible sound quality may find it to be a captivating look at the origins of one of metal's most important bands. As for the rest of us, it's just a bunch of old demos.
As Mercyful Fate's 1985-1993 hiatus raged on, Roadrunner Records released a trilogy of Mercyful Fate compilation albums. The first release, fittingly titled The Beginning
, contained early studio demos of previously released Mercyful Fate songs as well as containing the entire Mercyful Fate
EP. A Dangerous Meeting
, released in 1992, was a "best of" compilation which included material from both King Diamond and Mercyful Fate. Although both The Beginning
and A Dangerous Meeting
are very entertaining, they serve little purpose other than to earn Roadrunner Records a quick buck before Mercyful Fate's inevitable reunion. However, such is not the case with Return of the Vampire
Although it obviously is, Return of the Vampire
does not play like a mere cash grab. Instead, it offers an interesting origin story and provides insight into what the early days of Mercyful Fate were like. The album is a collection of nine previously unreleased studio demos from 1981 and 1982. Five of these demos are precursors to songs that have already appeared on a Mercyful Fate album before, while the remaining demos have never appeared elsewhere on any of their releases (with the exception of Return of the Vampire
, which would be re-recorded and released a year later on In the Shadows
with a faster tempo and featuring Metallica's Lars Ulrich on drums). As one can expect from a demo compilation album, the production is absolutely abysmal. Since the sound quality changes drastically per song, the production is tolerable on some songs and terrible on others. On top of this, the band's musicianship takes a significant dip in quality. This isn't to say that the band is devoid of skill during the album, however; merely, the members' skills simply appear undeveloped. Guitarists Shermann and Denner are still more than capable of busting out a memorable riff and shredding uncontrollably during their guitar solos. However, the pair barely make an attempt to harmonize with each other during instrumental sections, and their melodic playing, which they would come to master, is nearly nonexistent. As for King Diamond, his vocals during the album are sadly undeveloped. Although he still utilizes the high-pitched, falsetto wail that he is famous for, he struggles to hit high notes and he remains in his normal-sounding lower register voice far too often. Also, the drumming tends to be more simplistic than in future releases, and the bass ranges from audible but unimportant to nonexistent depending on the song. Despite a huge drop in musicianship and sound quality during Return of the Vampire
, Mercyful Fate still have the passion and energy that makes them such a fantastic band, and their songwriting abilities remain top-notch.
The demos of Curse of the Pharaohs
and A Corpse Without Soul
, two songs that would later appear on Melissa
and Mercyful Fate
, make for interesting listens even if they aren't on par with their better-produced counterparts. Although the two demos differ little from their respective final versions, both songs have characteristics that make them completely unique. A Corpse Without Soul
manages to retain the same high-speed tempo and thrashiness as the final version. However, the guitar solos are far less melodic, and guitarists Shermann and Denner make little attempt to harmonize with each other. The demo adds a few more verses and instrumental sections that expand the song's length by over a minute, but these changes add little to the sound's overall sound. The Curse of the Pharaohs
demo, although being structurally similar to its final version, has a completely different feel to it. The demo is significantly slower than its counterpart on Melissa
, giving the song an unexpectedly eerie atmosphere. While the final version sounds much more like a thrash metal song, the demo, displaying a hint of Black Sabbath influences, leans toward the doom metal persuasion. The problem with the song, however, is the lack of interesting guitar solos. The final version was chock-full of melodic shredding during the instrumental sections. Here, the solos sound bland and uninspired, often doing nothing more than repeating the song's riff. The earlier versions Curse of the Pharaohs
and A Corpse Without Soul
are two of the most skip-worthy tracks on the album.
Some of the demos that are early versions of songs which appeared on Melissa
and Don't Break the Oath
were reworked so much that they sound entirely different from their final versions. Death Kiss
, the early version of "A Dangerous Meeting," was included in the remastered edition of Don't Break the Oath
and sounds like an entirely different song than its final version. Although the lyrics are completely different and the song doesn't contain any of the melodic sections that made "A Dangerous Meeting" such a masterpiece, the main reason why the two songs sound so dissimilar can be attributed to Death Kiss
's appallingly bad production. The vocals are louder than any instrument in the song, the instruments sound lifeless and are hard to make out, the sound on the guitars stutter occasionally, and a wave of white noise towers over the song at every given second. King Diamond's vocals during the song are extremely peculiar as well; he sounds like a twelve-year old doing a Rob Halford impression. Despite its many faults, Death Kiss
is a strangely captivating song. If they are able to get past the atrocious sound quality and bizarre vocals, the listener may find an intriguing relic of what Mercyful Fate sounded like once upon a time. The album's closer, You Asked For It
, is the early version of "Black Masses," a B-side found only on The Beginning
. The song is rawer, more intense, and thrashier than "Black Masses," not to mention sped up beyond belief. However, You Asked For It
fails to match the quality of "Black Masses" due to the absence of a dark atmosphere and strong melodic passages, both of which the final version contained. On a Night of Full Moon
, the early version of "Desecration of Souls," is the only demo on Return of the Vampire
that is superior to its counterpart. The song begins with a spooky guitar solo which is completely distorted. The guitar explodes into its main riff, and King Diamond joins in. Just like the intro of "Desecration of Souls," King Diamond says his vocals with the lowest possible growl he can muster up; only this time, the lyrics change from "STAY AWAY, white magician. Young lovers, and mourning wife."
into the far more disturbing "STAY AWAY, I am evil!"
King Diamond then howls like a wolf during a full moon, and the unforgettable riff kicks in. Even with the bad production, everything about the song is an improvement over "Desecration of Souls" (which is a fantastic song in and of itself). On a Night of Full Moon
has tone of the most haunting atmospheres out of any Mercyful Fate song ever released. For the first time on the album, the guitar solos are beautifully melodic, and the instrumental sections are extremely enjoyable. The drumming is absolutely terrific, and is the most impressive part of the entire song. However, what makes the track so entertaining is that it has a gloriously cheesy, B-horror movie feel to it. With the notable exception of On a Night of Full Moon
, the demos all improved greatly after being reworked into their final versions.
The first unreleased, never-before-heard track on Return of the Vampire
is the album's opener, Burning the Cross
. Unlike the other unreleased songs on the album, Burning the Cross
was written by former guitarist Benny Petersen, Denner's predecessor, who left Mercyful Fate before they were signed to a record label. For this reason only, the song never saw the light of day. This is a shame; between its demonic lyrics, harmonic riff, melodic instrumental sections, and typically insane vocals, Burning the Cross
would have fit perfectly on Melissa
or Don't Break the Oath
. In addition, the song is rivaled only by Melissa
's "Satan's Fall" in terms of epic length and progressiveness. The next unreleased track, Return of the Vampire
, is by far the rawest and heaviest song on the album. The mid-tempo, chugging riff is complemented by the straightforward bassline and simplistic drumming. King Diamond's vocal approach adds to the bloodcurdling atmosphere the song builds. He utilizes his lower vocals during the verses, and he sounds more tortured with every word he sings. The chorus begins melodically, but becomes rather horrifying after an onslaught of high-pitched, screaming voices begin to sing along. The song speeds up and becomes lighter in tone as it progresses, yet it never reaches a point where it resembles a traditional Mercyful Fate song. The last two unreleased tracks, Leave My Soul Alone
(Mission: Destroy Aliens), barely resemble Mercyful Fate songs in any way, the reason being that both songs were written by Denner for his pre-Mercyful Fate band. Each song lacks Mercyful Fate trademarks, such as complex song structure, evil lyrics, and high-pitched, wailing vocals. Leave My Soul Alone
is a song about someone running from the cops after he murders his friend, while M.D.A.
is based on the video game "Mission: Destroy Aliens." Both songs are extremely straightforward and sound closer to traditional hard rock songs than heavy metal. Both musically and thematically, Leave My Soul Alone
have absolutely no place in the Mercyful Fate catalog, although they are decent songs by themselves. Burning the Cross
and Return of the Vampire
, on the other hand, could easily have been placed on one of Mercyful Fate's 1980s releases.
When a band releases an album that consists of unreleased songs and old demos, the same question is always raised, "Why were these songs never released in the first place"" Most people claim that bands will only negate a song from their album if that song isn't good enough to make the final cut. Unfortunately, Mercyful Fate's Return of the Vampire
only asserts that claim. The demos that are precursors to later-released Mercyful Fate songs are interesting to hear due to their historic value, but hold no weight on their own because of terrible production and musicianship that is still somewhat amateur. The tracks that were previously unreleased are hit-or-miss, but generally fail to match the quality of songs on a Mercyful Fate LP. Honestly, the album makes no clear case as to why it needs to exist.
If you are a die hard Mercyful Fate fan, Return of the Vampire
should make for an entertaining listen, even if you don't unearth any gems in the process. As for everyone else, in the words of King Diamond, "STAY AWAY!"