Metal's crimson King
The lunchtime clientele is about what you'd expect for a semirural rib shack not too many miles from Texas Stadium. There are a couple of telephone repairmen, a table of secretaries giggling over a pitcher of beer, and an isolated sales guy trying to keep barbecue sauce off his rack suit.
And then there's the slight, handsome Satanist with the muttonchop sideburns and faint Scandinavian accent who happens to be an international rock star. He's King Diamond, who--since the early '80s--has sold hundreds of thousands of albums under his own name as well as with his other band, Mercyful Fate, whose prodigious and sinister output has set new standards for black metal and rendered Ozzy Osborne laughable by comparison.
But no one gobbling barbecue today recognizes the Danish-born King, a Dallas resident since 1992. For one thing, he's not in his Alice Cooper/KISS-style grease-paint make-up; for another, the singer has been so busy wrapping up two new albums--King Diamond's The Graveyard and Mercyful Fate's Into the Unknown--that he hasn't spent much time in the local public eye lately. Both albums were recorded at Dallas Sound Lab and are now out on Metal Blade Records, and each respectively highlights a different aspect of Diamond's dichotomous personality, one that has been undergoing a continual musical and philosophical evolution for the past 20 years.
"What really influenced me to get into this and develop the King Diamond character was Alice Cooper," says Diamond, now in his late 30s. "I saw his show back in '75, and the way he came across with make-up on was something bigger than life, much more than just a rock singer standing up there. I decided that I could use that, too--not in the same way, but as a totally different concept to emphasize what I wanted."
Obviously, the members of KISS had the same idea, but where they've always come off like cartoon characters--and Alice Cooper's act relies on tongue-in-cheek rock Vaudeville--Diamond's persona and music is decidedly more ominous. As most metalheads know, Mercyful Fate was actually Diamond's first band. Formed in Scandinavia and responsible for such mid-'80s genre classics as the Melissa and Don't Break the Oath albums, Mercyful Fate represents the dark, philosophical side of Diamond's muse, relying more on musical collaborations within the group, which now includes guitarists Michael Denner and Hank Shermann, bassist Sharlee D'Angelo, and drummer Bjarne T. Holm.
The King Diamond band, on the other hand--put together after the first version of Mercyful Fate broke up (it reformed in the late '80s)--treads heavily through rock opera territory, performing concept pieces for which Edgar Allan Poe could have written the librettos, de Sade designed the extravagant stage sets, and Dr. Moreau, the grisly theatrics. The group's high water marks came with the bookend albums Abigail and Them--at least until The Graveyard--and those records' influence on today's morbid metal practitioners and fans is almost incalculable. Diamond conceptualizes and writes almost all the material for KD, with musical help from longtime guitarist Andy La Rocque; guitarist Herb Simonsen, bassist Chris Estes, and drummer Darrin Anthony constitute the rest of the band.
Diamond, whose multioctave, whisper-to-a-scream voice is the only constant uniting King Diamond and Mercyful Fate, stresses that the two are very different bands that have recorded very different albums.
"The Graveyard is another concept thing, and Mercyful Fate has always been about individual songs," explains Diamond, thoughtfully chewing a rib. "To that extent, the King Diamond CD is more varied and ambitious, with all types of musical styles. The Mercyful Fate is more old-fashioned heavy metal with a lot of complex arrangements and riffs."
Into the Unknown is a captivating return to those metallic days when Black Sabbath and Uriah Heep could fill the big halls; in their sonic tradition, Mercyful Fate songs have discernible melodies coupled with twin guitar leads, reminding older folks that pregrunge metal used to be built around monstrous guitar figures like Deep Purple's "Burn" or Captain Beyond's "Dancing Madly Backwards (On a Sea of Air)"--rather than simply three or four droning chords drifting in from Seattle on a cloud of smack.
As for The Graveyard--which Diamond thinks could someday be a novel--it's strictly a horror exercise, set to a frenzied, ambitious, and cleverly orchestrated score. The story concerns what happens when a madman hiding in a cemetery can't make the townspeople believe that their mayor is molesting his own young daughter. The lunatic--who was sane when institutionalized by the mayor to begin with--decides to save the little girl; naturally much blood-splattering, gore-splashing, murder, decapitation, exhumation, and sundry supernatural phenomena ensue.
But what would surely surprise the most fervent Tipper Gore follower is that The Graveyard's overall theme is a warning about the dangers of child molestation. Pretty responsible stuff for a Satanist, huh?
"Well, I wouldn't expect that my main audience is mothers and fathers," Diamond muses, "but the idea is that, in these times, parents should look after kids and better prepare them for the world. The whole idea of the album came from recurring news stories of released child molesters. It pisses me off so bad."
While The Graveyard is probably not something Dad will want to throw in the CD player after a family viewing of Bambi, the nature of Diamond's Satanism would surprise the metroplex Bible Belters who probably make up the bulk of his suburban neighbors.
"Yeah, I constantly get that horns-on-the-head stuff from people who have no idea what Satanism is about," Diamond says earnestly. "The underlying premise of Anton LaVey's Church of Satan in San Francisco, of which I am a member and have been for years, is simply that we should accept freedom of religion. Every person is different and unique, and you should pick whatever works for you. If you want to choose aspects of 15 different religions, or stick with this one or that one, as long as you are satisfied, it doesn't really matter what anybody else thinks or whether you think like they do. You don't have to convert anybody, and if you are a true Satanist you recognize people as different individuals with different needs, and you respect that."
Diamond takes a demonic sip of iced tea, then carries on. It's obvious he's tired of being represented as some head-spinning, split-pea soup-spewing acolyte of Beelzebub. "What I believe has nothing to do with the traditional Christian view of Satanism, like hell and demons. I have three cats in my house, and anyone who would harm an animal in a ritual sense--who would do the things traditionally associated with [devil worshippers]--isn't remotely close to a Satanist. Those people are completely insane; they need to be put away. Those people do not get those ideas from LaVey or The Satanic Bible, because [the philosophy] is totally contrary to that type of thing."
Still, the tunes in the King Diamond-Mercyful Fate catalogue aren't exactly of the teenager-in-love, boy-meets-girl variety. There's some pretty malefic stuff going on, ranging from Tales From the Crypt starter kits about spiders and witches to "our Father who art in hell" stanzas.
Diamond smiles. "My songs definitely describe the darkest side of the human mind," he admits, "but the monsters are in my mind. I have definite occult interests and occult experiences, but I should point out that every song I write starts off as a story--just like Stephen King or Dean Koontz."
Diamond scoffs at the notion that a motive in his music is to try to entice listeners into Evil Acts, as Judas Priest-style lawsuits (where parents sue metal bands for lyrical coercion after their progeny commit unspeakable deeds) would have us believe; rather, Diamond sees his work as a kind of test.
"What I write is more like a provocation," Diamond explains. "Can you listen to this without a reactionary response? It's not as disturbing depending on who you are, but I must say people in America are a bit curious in their faith. People are praying to lose weight! Well, that's not a question of faith. Maybe if they pray hard, they'll sweat enough to lose a little!"
He shakes his head in amazement. "What's scary over here is to watch some of these preachers on television. People will spend their last dime on some preacher sitting there with 15 rings on each finger, begging for more money. Now that's evil."
The restaurant is clearing out, and all that's left on Diamond's plate is a pile of bones; he has a long evening of rehearsal ahead. Both King Diamond and Mercyful Fate will shortly head to Brazil for a Monsters of Rock festival where they will play before 49,000 people and no doubt blow headliner Iron Maiden off the stage. Shortly after that, both bands will head to Europe for an autumn tour together, a prospect that daunts the King not in the least.
"There's some strain, but it's OK if you're in good shape," Diamond says. "I'm not a party animal on the road, because I know if I start drinking, it'll affect my voice. And if the next day I don't sound like I want to, I know it's my fault and I can't accept that. People pay good money to see you, and it's just not right to say, 'I sound like shit, but I had a great time, so fuck you.' I respect my fans too much.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.