This week on Vanyaland we are celebrating all things 1987 with a look back at moments, trends, and icons in the worlds of music and film. Follow along #V87.
Somewhere near the 15-minute mark of Abigail, the second LP and first concept album from Danish heavy metal lifer King Diamond, there’s a moment that neatly sums up the appeal of the man’s whole career. “Beware of the slippery stairs,” warns King, in character as “The Family Ghost”: “You could easily falllll,” his soaring falsetto continues, before abruptly dropping to a gravelly shout of “AND BREAK YOUR NECK!”
A bit of ghoulish cackling follows, and it’s best to picture King in this moment as he appears in the song’s truly incredible music video: Sporting a cape, elaborate face paint and some fashionable inverted-cross earrings. The magic of King Diamond springs from a balance of camp, menace and gothic horror intrigue, and it’s all right there in a glorious 10 seconds of musical jump-scare.
There’s a lot to unpack here. “The Family Ghost,” Abigail’s fourth track, finds said spirit, the specter of Count de la Fey, leading his living relative Jonathan down to the crypts of Jonathan’s newly-inherited Spooky Old Mansion where the corpse of the album’s titular character rests. Abigail — the stillborn illegitimate child of the Count’s wife — is evil, you see. The Count must warn Jonathan to stop her from being reborn through his own pregnant wife, Miriam, who is — for some reason — possessed of her spirit. If it sounds convoluted, fear not, because a corpse-painted man with a four-octave vocal range is here to guide you along the fogged path of this haunted house soap opera.
That man is Kim Bendix Petersen, better known as King Diamond, who made his name in the early 1980s as lead singer of black metal progenitors Mercyful Fate. The band lasted just four years during its original run, but courted controversy with songs about witchcraft and the devil and influenced legions of heathens to follow. King was two years removed from that breakup in 1987, and the group he’d founded in his own name with bandmates Michael Denner and Timi Hansen in its wake already had a debut record under its belt. 1986’s Fatal Portrait took on a somewhat lighter tone than Mercyful Fate’s satanic histrionics, and hinted at a storytelling impulse, but it was Abigail that truly brought the band’s cinematic vision into focus.
Abigail was the first in a lengthy chronology of King’s horror-themed concept albums, but it remains the finest among them. Opening track “Funeral” lures us in by fading into some period-appropriate horror soundtrack atmospherics, while a distorted voice intones something or other about a child “first born dead,” some silver spikes and black horsemen. It’s a genuinely eerie 90 seconds before the full-blown heavy metal stomp of “Arrival” jumpstarts the possession saga at hand, and there’s a pretty remarkable amount of exposition neatly crammed into the next 38 minutes. Without delving into immense detail, there’s a stern warning from a mysterious band of horsemen, the aforementioned Family Ghost, a flashback song, marital infidelity, murder, mummification, threatening omens, a demonic overnight pregnancy, full-blown possession, more murder, demon birth and, finally, a funeral much like the album’s intro that suggests a cyclical nature to it all.
What truly makes Abigail a remarkable achievement in heavy metal history, though, is how much fun it still is when you don’t even pay attention to any of this. Tall tales aside, it’s a headbanging delight that overflows with massive riffs, pounding drums, acrobatic solos and King’s paint-peeling falsetto. Many of the songs unfold through operatic storytelling and dialogue rather than traditional verse/chorus song structure, but they somehow never feel clunky or ponderous or any less worthy of raising the horns as a result. And so masterful is King’s command over voice and melody that it still rules when he does wring a chorus out of something like “So he pushed her down the stairs/To die!/No!/She cried.”
Right down to its pitch-perfect cover artwork of a funereal horse-drawn carriage, Abigail is the ideal realization of its fright-fest concept album form. It’s creepy, it’s campy, and it’s very ’80s (let’s briefly think back to that music video, though King himself reportedly loathed it), but 30 years later it still endures as a fan favorite and a natural entry point into the sinister world of King Diamond. In recent years, the full band has even taken it on the road as a front-to-back theatrical performance — a feat they’ll take on once again at this weekend’s Psycho Las Vegas festival. Much like the relentless demon child at its heart, Abigail’s immortal evil perseveres.