My Favorite Album: John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats on Mercyful Fate's "Don't Break the Oath" | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Friday, July 10th, 2020  

My Favorite Album: John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats on Mercyful Fate’s “Don’t Break the Oath”

"I realized that Don't Break the Oath features the greatest guitar riffs in the whole history of music."

Mar 03, 2020 Photography by Jeremy Lange Issue #66 - My Favorite Album - Angel Olsen and Sleater-Kinney
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I was living in Portland in '85-'86, and I wouldn't say I was an apprentice speed freak, because I wasn't on speed all of the time, but I was quite often taking really hard speedcrystal meth. And that kind of music was very popular with people who were into that. I was a goth guy mainly in my listeninggoth and dance music in those days, because I was going out to dance a lot. But as happens when you're a druggie, one night my apartment was full of people that I'd never met    before, and they were all speed metal kids. This was like '86. And we're all super high, and one of them sat down and wrote a poem in praise of Mercyful Fate. I thought that was the most amazing use of your drug time. And they bore down so hard with the stylus of the pen that the poem wound up leaving an impression on my desktop. This left a huge impression on the desk and on me.

So I went and listened to Don't Break the Oath at a listening station about a year later, when I was no longer smoking meth, and I didn't get it. Do you remember the first time you heard [lead vocalist] King Diamond's voice? It's a moment. It asks a lot of you. It asks you to reconsider the way you're thinking about a lead singer. And I did, and I said, "Okay, well that's that." And I didn't look at it again. At that time I was into a fair bit of thrash. I liked Megadeth and Celtic Frost, and as the '80s progressed metal grows and death metal happens and black metal happens. At some point in the '90s I'm on tour, and I see the album. I go, "You were always curious about that, and you had a strong reaction listening to it." So I bought a used copy, and at this point I was much more open to the riffs. I realized that Don't Break the Oath features the greatest guitar riffs in the whole history of music.

The songs on Don't Break the Oath are discrete. They're mainly about Satanic and witchy themes, sort of classic '70s horror movie Rosemary's Baby-type thingsjust scary and exiting and lurid Satanic scenes. But I think the story of Don't Break the Oath is that it's the best collection of riffs anywhere. Metallica would have a case on Kill 'Em All. If you're talking about riffing, Zeppelin and Sabbath are the titans. But Don't Break the Oath stands up to literally every riff collection ever. Every single riff is amazing.

You could say the theatrics of black metal bands is a bit too much. But life is short, so why not buy in? Why not accept something on its own terms? Because I do think that the indie rock that I was getting into and that was big in '91 to '95 was no less performative in the identity that it was trying to present, but the identity was a little more believable. So if you're constructing an identity, why not go for it? If you say, "My identity is as a slacker," that's not nearly as interesting as "My identity is a guy who sleeps with a skull." That's much better.

(The Mountain Goats started as a solo project for John Darnielle in 1991. The band's current lineup features Peter Hughes, Jon Wurster, and Matt Douglas. The band's most recent album, the Dungeons & Dragons-inspired In League with Dragons, was released earlier this year via Merge. Mercyful Fate is a Danish metal band formed in 1981. Portions of John Darnielle's conversation have been abridged and edited for structure and flow.)

[Note: This article originally appeared in Issue 66 of Under the Radar's print magazine, which is out now. This is its debut online. For the issue we interviewed musicians and actors about their all-time favorite album.]

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