Portrait - s/t 3.5/5

Reviewed: 8-8-08


1. Hell
2. A ghastly silence
3. Willage of the fallen angel
4. Consecration
5. A thousand nightmares
6. Bow unto the Devil
7. Beware the demons
8. The adversary

Like Mercyful Fate? I'm not talking about their watered-down 'Dead again'/'9'/'Into the unknown' period. I'm talking about the early days. Think "Desecration of souls", "Curse of the pharaohs", "Doomed by the living dead", "A dangerous meeting", "Come to the sabbath", and the like. You know, the period from 1982-1985 when you'd never heard anything creepier, scarier, heavier or cooler than Mercyful Fate. The intricate, almost progressive songwriting (not in a slide-rule-and-calculator way, but in a mindblowing "woah, what was that?" sort of way). The legendary Shermann/Denner guitar tandem. The thundering Grabber/Ruzz rhythm section. And King Diamond's eerie falsetto shrieks, plaintive mid-range, and menacing low-end vocals belting out the unabashedly occult lyrics, praising Satan and making the hair on the back of your neck stand on end as your blood turns to ice water in your veins. If you fall into the segment of heavy metal fandom that never cared for Mercyful Fate, then save yourself 3 minutes and stop reading now because you'll glean nothing of value from this review. But if you recall that formative era of Mercyful Fate with as much fondness as I do, Portrait are well worth a close look.

There's really no way to exaggerate or overstate the point, so I'll come right out and say it: This Swedish quintet have made it their single-minded mission to recreate the sound, vibe and spirit of early Mercyful Fate. And they have succeeded in large part. Guitarists Christian Lindell and Richard Lagergren do an exceptional job of capturing that NWOBHM-meets-Venom-punk-meets-evil-darkness-in-a-dark-alleyway playing style that characterized the riffs and harmonies of Shermann and Denner in their heyday. The coolness quotient in the guitar department is off the end of the chart and sold me on Portrait's music from the word go. The rhythm section of David Stranderud (bass) and Anders Persson (drums) masterfully pulls off the many tricky time changes without breaking a sweat. And vocalist Philip Svennefelt does an admirable job attempting to channel the highs, mid-ranges and lows of the inimitable King Diamond. The problem is that Svennefelt is inevitably setting himself up for failure because I doubt that anyone (even King himself) could duplicate those 'Melissa'/'Don't break the oath' vocal performances today. That cold hard fact doesn't deter Svennefelt from trying. Sure, his low ends sound duly fearsome and sinister, and his mid-ranges convey the right blend of melancholy and abject misery, but his high falsettos just don't cut it. And this is coming from someone who sincerely enjoys King Diamond's falsetto voice. Svennefelt too often sounds weak, off-key and whiny at the high end, and he spends way too much time in that range. With falsetto vocals in heavy metal, there's an awfully fine line between effective and unlistenable. Svennefelt straddles that line just a bit too close for comfort sometimes.

I guess the more fundamental issue is whether the heavy metal world needs a Mercyful Fate clone in 2008. One way to answer the question is yes, absolutely. Fate have been on hiatus since 1999, and it could be persuasively argued that their last truly excellent CD was 1994's criminally overlooked 'Time' opus. If the Danish originators of the sound aren't bearing the torch anymore, then what's the problem with Portrait swooping in to fill the niche? They carry the flag. They show us all what might have been had King Diamond not launched a solo career in 1986, but instead carried on with Mercyful Fate. The counterargument is, of course, that nothing on Portrait's debut CD lays a glove on those first 2 Mercyful Fate CDs (well, 3, if you count 'The beginning'), so why bother? But I have an answer to that question. Hearing Portrait makes me reminisce about the classic Fate CDs. Better still, it makes me wanna go crank some early Fate. That's not a bad thing, now, is it? To paraphrase soon-to-be-ex-President Bush, mission accomplished, boys, mission accomplished.




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