The three years that passed between my mother’s death in November 1988 and my first date with Maura in December 1991 felt longer than the five that preceded them and the twenty five which followed them. It’s understandable, as it was a period marked by one life-changing event after another. One of the most significant of these was my transformation from a shaggy-maned soul boy into an metalhead sporting a severe buzzcut.
It happened pretty rapidly, unfolding less than six weeks after my mom’s fatal tumble down our attic stairs. My brother and I had moved into my grandmother’s spare room and were getting used to the strange new world of dentist visits, regular haircuts, and a well stocked fridge and pantry. This was completely unlike the life we had before everything came crashing down, and it — and the natural restlessness that comes with being sixteen years old — made me exceedingly receptive to an internal shakeup of my old habits.
The hospital kitchen where I worked had a sizable contingent of metalheads who were big fans of the scene’s “thrash” subgenre. For some reason I cannot fathom, I asked the dude working the pot-washing station if he could make me a copy of the tape he was rocking out to during his shift. It was Flotsam & Jetsom’s No Place for Disgrace which took a bit to get used to, but soon became my favorite album in the whole wide world…for a short time.
Over the next few weeks, I raided the metal section Burlington’s Newbury Comics location for cassettes by Metallica, Anthrax, Slayer, Fates Warning, and Celtic Frost. The aggressive bombast and frequently geeky themes of the music slotted perfectly with my preoccupations of the time — Warhammer and bleak “mature readers” comics and horror fiction and the urgent desire to be more than the quietly sad victim of a family tragedy.
In hindsight, it was pretty unhealthy in the short term. My socialization skills were already poor enough without dumping a fuckton of affected adolescent transgressiveness into the mix. Yet it did set me on the path to a form of self-actualization on my own terms. I was an obnoxious little shit regardless, so maybe it was a blessing I found a marginally manageable outlet for those behaviors before they became permanently ingrained.
Yet as huge a personal paradigm shift as that phase was, it only lasted around four months before I gravitated away from thrash metal and into the realm of hardcore punk. I still listened to Anthrax and Slayer for a while after my fateful purchase of the Repo Man soundtrack in May 1989, but it was as a punk rocker who happened to like some heavy metal songs. By the time I finished my first semester of college, I’d either sold, tossed or given away most of my metal albums.
Since that break, I’ve only revisited that era on rare occasions. I’m not necessarily ashamed of it — no more so than I’m ashamed of my teenage antics overall — but it was a transitional phase I’d moved past and felt no need to dredge up outside conversations with metalhead pals or when a certain half-remembered track fit the theme of an AT 1.0 music blogging post.
That’s why it came as a bit of a surprise when, in the course of plotting out a Halloween playlist, this blast from my forsaken past lept back into my forebrain….
Even during those rare moments when I reminisced about my metal-loving days, I had entirely blotted King Diamond from memory. Strange, because he was second only to Anthrax when it came to the depths of my devotion.
Diamond was something of an outlier in my thrash-centric fandom, even further outside that wheelhouse than Fates Warning’s prog-leaning spin on the subgenre. Thrash bands tended to be pretty basic on the fashion front — long hair, jeans, t-shirts, and leather jackets. It was a look that mirrored that of their fans and was in direct opposition to the absurdities of glam metal excess and the cliched public conception of metal musicians in general.
King Diamond, on the other hand, opted for the full Halford-Dio-Cooper approach, right down to the Dracula cape and full face paint. Everything about him was theatrical in the extreme, contemporary metal crunchiness married to bizarre concept albums packed with effects work and dealing with occult themes.
And his voice — oh god, his voice — falsetto wails to feral growls and back in again in the space of a single phrase, all in service of selling some convoluted tale of demonic terror.
On first glance, there was no reason whatsoever to take any of it seriously…but I most certainly did.
It all came down to Abigail, Diamond’s 1987 concept album about the malevolent spirit of a stillborn child seeing supernatural revenge against the descendants of her murderer. One of the dudes at the hospital played a copy for us and we were utterly amazed by it. Concept albums were nothing new, but this was more than a common thread between a collection of otherwise single-ready cuts. This was a clear narrative told from beginning to end which also happened to be a nine-song metal album.
For the aspiring musicians in that little circle, it was an impetus to expand their own musical ambitions. For me, it was a goad to double down on the derivative horror fiction epics I submitted to my high school’s literary journal.
Abigail was one of the first compact discs I ever purchased, solely to obtain the lyric sheet my cassette version lacked. There were lines and phrases in the songs that I was unable to decipher, and I was worried that I’d been missing some crucial elements of the story. As it turned out, most of bits I couldn’t understand were victims of a Danish band’s shaky grasp of English pronunciation coupled with some lyrical panel beating. His reads of “sar-co-PHAY-gus” and “embyro” with the “y” as a long “i” were two of the more stand-out howlers.
My King Diamond obsession died a quick death following my transition from metal to punk, because he lacked the crossover cred that acts like Anthrax or Metallica possessed. He was metal on the most unabashed variety and there was no reconciling that within the tribal boundaries of my newly chosen subculture. It seems so silly in hindsight, but not when you’re a teenager intent on establishing an personal identity.
In the aftermath of this unexpected flashback, I sat down and re-listened to Abigail in its macabre entirety…and I honestly enjoyed both the album and the experience. It’s goofy, but that’s not necessarily a drawback for a metal album for me these days, and there are some parts that still managed to elicit legitimate chills on my end.
I couldn’t tell you how much of that is due to nostalgia and how much is due to unclouded critical analysis, but I’m past a point where such a distinction matters.