Here are three facts, as I understand them.
First is gravity. If it goes up, it comes down. Newton's apple, et cetera.
Two: Belgium is a country in Europe, sure.
And three: Heavy metal is the best music.
Wait. Metal's maybe not necessarily the best music. But it's the most music.
Metal seduces types who like the most of a thing. I mean, the genre's defining joke is taking an amplifier that goes to 10 and making it go to 11. If you want the most power, the most dread, the most notes-per-guitar solo, you probably like heavy metal.
And if, in that whole superlative sonic panorama, you settle for nothing more than the most of the most, then you probably like King Diamond.
Front man of Denmark's Mercyful Fate and his own eponymous outfit, known for extravagant stage theatrics and baroque concept albums, King Diamond's as good a mascot for heavy metal as Satan himself. His voice wavers between sinister howls and falsetto quivers, his lyrics indexing grisly sabbatic rituals. Until it was stolen in the mid-eighties, he sang into a human skull, which he named Melissa.
He's not just the most metal. King Diamond is metal.
So, reaching him by phone at his home in Austin, Tex., on the cusp of his first major North American tour in nearly a decade, it's odd to find him so … boring. The image in my mind of a glowering metal icon, face plastered in monochromatic corpse paint, is inconsistent with the chipper, excitable 58-year-old more eager to talk about his cholesterol, daily power-walking routine and recently acquired recording equipment ("I got a new vocal booth from VocalBooth.com") than pacts with Lucifer.
Diamond talks about his music more or less like any musician I've ever talked to talks about their music: as an expression of something deeply, meaningfully personal. He rejects the idea that Mercyful Fate's early-eighties albums – fast, scary, filled with poker-faced references to the desecration of souls – were meant to rebuff the bombast of British metal acts of the late seventies. "We were not even thinking about those things," he swears, in his plucky Danish accent. "The inspiration for the lyrics came from experiences, and from interest in the occult. We did what we felt."
That guiding ethos – "We did what we felt" – echoes the core tenet of British occultist Aleister Crowley: "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law." It also sums up the spirit of heavy metal, particularly in the wake of Mercyful Fate, when bands got darker, heavier and more severe in terms of both sound and ideology.
"Merycful Fate were the first band that was really extreme in terms of their viewpoints, and their artwork," says Metal Blade Records founder and CEO Brian Slagel. "They made it okay for bands to take it to the next level."
Alongside Sweden's Bathory and Switzerland's Hellhammer, Mercyful Fate led the first wave of European black metal, a genre defined by high-pitched guitar work, lo-fi recording and legit-scary vocal screeches.
Second-wave black metallers like Darkthrone, Mayhem and Emperor stripped what was left of macho metal triumphalism, doubled down on the scowling misanthropy and committed singularly to the extremity, Slagel mentions. Increasingly stark shock tactics were one-upped in the scene's blackest quarters by straight-up violence: murders, hate crimes, a string of church burnings across Norway. Black metal's second wave took metal's most-ness to its furthest periphery – a scorched-earth campaign to define the genre's sonic and ideological margins.
But time, taste formation and the Internet's hastening of both have drawn those margins closer toward the mainstream. Netflix-able black-metal docs have offered crash courses in music that had long seethed under sheets of Scandinavian permafrost. Last month, at a Toronto show by San Francisco black-metal act Deafheaven – critical favourites frequently dogged by the peculiar "hipster metal" tag – I saw kids who looked no older than 14 decked out in Mayhem and Burzum shirts.
The adolescent underclass of scrawny dorks and pimply chubs has long donned heavy metal's livery of pilled tour T-shirts and patched-up denim vests as an overstated tough-guy pose. But this was something different: teenage kids flexing not just taste-as-T-shirt-choice, but something closer to discernment. These were outsiders wanting to be the most outside, because it meant something to be there.
Elsewhere, poets and novelists like Michael Robbins and John Darnielle are name-checking death-metal bands in their work and the subsequent interviews, pushing metal beyond the barricades of mere acceptability and endowing it with its own pop-intellectual dimension.
It's hard to know how the return of black metal's corpse-painted godfather (stopping in Montreal and Toronto this weekend) will fare with "hipster metal" types. By modern standards, inverting a few crosses on stage or singing into a mike stand made out of human bones feels quaint.
To wit, when asked about shock tactics in metal past and present, Diamond focuses on the mechanics, not the politics, of terror. Such as: "You think of certain scenarios that can be very realistic. You squoosh a spider on your pillow, for instance, and you start thinking. People say we eat a whole bunch of spiders every year that we're not aware of. And your brain goes, 'What? No, no, no …,' then, 'Oh yes.' You shock yourself!" (This trick of mental deception, incidentally, recurs across Diamond's discography.)
Slagel confesses that King Diamond's whole aesthetic – while treasured among hardened headbangers – is demonstrably un-hip. King Diamond is imposing, massively entertaining and maybe even important. But he's not cool.
Then again, it's not very cool to be an adult man backlighting yourself with a desk lamp against a home-office wall, peeking over your shoulder at your silhouette as you belt King Diamond's At the Graves into a coffee mug you're pretending is a skull named Melissa, secretly hoping your body will atomize into a puff of smoke or turn into 10,000 bats and disperse into the dusk. But it's sure fun.
The most fun, even.
King Diamond performs at Toronto's Sound Academy on Saturday night.