Angels in the musical arts have gotten a bad reputation. Not even bad in a colorful, smoking-in-the-boys-room kind of way, but bad in a cliched and whitewashed way. Simpy, bloodless, with nary an ounce of passion and power. Once portrayed as creatures that possessed a fierce range of emotions who sported the faces and limbs from a variety of animals, how did such powerful creatures get their wings clipped and used to push the safest of music? Even the phrase, “voice of an angel,” is typically used to describe a singer that your grandparents would heartily approve of while they bitch and gripe about how the rest of your generation is dancing their way to sin and damnation. (In other words, just like the innumerable generations before them!)
Well, no more!
There are two truly angelic voices that rarely if ever get handed such a worthy descriptor. There is the interstellar angel of light, Klaus Nomi, a former pastry chef that looked like the most beautiful German Expressionist pixie with a countertenor voice that remains a pure definition of sui generis. Nomi’s voice and technique had such feel. Being a technician is achievable for most, with the right amount of knuckle grease, but possessing a wholly ethereal and haunting feel? Good luck! Nomi had all of this and more. Being ushered into a realm of paradise by a creature such as Klaus not only feels plausible but ripe with the very essence of dreamy.
Where there’s light, there is also a craving need for shadows and dusk. The dark yin to Nomi’s white light yang comes from Denmark and is an innovator of one of the most striking and controversial subgenres of heavy metal. King Diamond, both solo and with his seminal black metal band, Mercyful Fate, is famous for his ability to craft epic stories and scenes that often incorporate creative use of intense blasphemies and pagan-folk-horror. Mix this with his striking corpse-painted face and a voice that is unmistakable. Black metal vocal work tends to be more associated with deep-voiced-evil-muppet growlings, so it an unholy ace in the deck that one of its godfathers often sings with this otherworldly high intonation. King Diamond is the ultimate voice for dark metal because he sings like an angel….a fallen angel. What is more metal than that?
Today, the goal is to build back the sturm-und-drang behind the “voice of an angel” adage by examining two seminal works from these equal but miles long different artists, starting with Nomi’s self-titled debut album.
From ancient worlds I come/To see what man has done
Nomi’s entrance into the musical stratosphere was akin to an indefinable and bewitching meteor. “Keys of Life,” the first song on his self-titled debut album, sets the tone of strange beauty. The music is gauze-like, with the background vocals and overall production making it sound like Nomi’s voice is slowly descending upon Earth from the upper reaches of the atmosphere. The alien is the ultimate angel. It’s a gorgeous song, which is an adjective that one could throw confetti-like at Nomi over and over again.
Nature’s taken over my one-track mind/Believe it or not, you’re in my heart all of the time
Something that’s a core staple in the small but mighty Nomi discography is the cover song. His approach positively permutates singer-songwriter Lou Christie’s 1965 hit love song about wooing some hot action by playing on his girl’s heartstrings, “Lightnin’ Strikes.” It’s a curious choice by a decidedly fantastical artist, with Nomi’s talk-singing the non-choral parts, which borders on some Zarah Leander-esque tones before erupting into glass-caressing high notes when he gets to the chorus. The music backing Klaus on this track is okay if a bit reedy compared to other songs on the album, but the creature himself is a gift.
C’mon humans. Let’s do the twist.
Continuing the bizarro-world-cover-song goodness, Nomi stalks and slinks around the Chubby Checker golden oldie, “The Twist.” Backed by some deliciously eerie music intertwined with one tasty bass line, resulting in something that is hypnotic and queerly sensual. It’s alien-sonic-alchemy with a sinister-seduction, with the song ending with sing-songy laughter.
Will the human race/With their collective brow/
Will they know me, know me, know me now?
Fighting for expression is one of the most real and primal needs because everyone, at our core, wants to be understood. Hell, to even have someone try to understand you, even if they are only able to meet you five miles out to shore, is a gift in this life. This is something that was a reoccurring theme in Nomi’s work. The “Nomi Song” illustrates this in a most captivating way, between the upbeat synth work, which is belied by Nomi’s voice vulnerable and sweetly skirting the edges of heartbreak. After all, Nomi = know me.
Far unfit to bear the bitter cold…I can scarcely move or draw
my breath…let me, let me freeze to death
Even the most ardent opera hater could be converted, even for a moment, by Klaus Nomi. Especially upon hearing “The Cold Song,” Nomi’s classical version of the aria of the “Cold Genius” from Henry Purcell’s 1691 opera, King Arthur, or The British Worthy, which soars as it sears directly to the center of the heart. It pours true blue emotion as the singer and the song hauntingly surrender to death itself. Knowing that Nomi’s untimely death that would be just a mere two years later after the release of the album makes it feel even more richly stark and sad.
Big shots/Argue about what they’ve got/Making the planet as hot/
Hot as a holocaust
Reading the above lyrics, one could easily think that “Total Eclipse” was written five minutes ago. This is not only a testament to Nomi’s power and Kristian Hoffman’s (IE. The Mumps, Congo Norvell, James Chance, many more) lyrics but also more proof that 2018 has mutated into the worst reboot of the 1980’s yet. Musically, the song has a catchy, almost goony kind of vibe, offsetting the post-apocalyptic lyrics quite nicely. There’s a brilliant live version of “Total Eclipse” in the 1981 concert film, Urgh! A Music War. (If you haven’t seen it, seek it out ASAP, not only for Klaus but also to see The Cramps, Wall of Voodoo, Skafish, John Otway, just to name the best and brightest.)
Klaus Nomi was more than an innovator who broke down and re-bridged musical genres together. He was something truly rare in this world; an artist free from any and all compromise. If there are celestial angels, they undoubtedly look and sound like Klaus Nomi.
From the upper heights to the glowing embers and arched torment of the Inferno, this is where King Diamond and his band, Mercyful Fate, comes in.
One of the biggest godfathers of black metal, who are still unparalleled today, Mercyful Fate released one juggernaut of a melodic, heavy, and even beautiful album, with 1984’s Don’t Break the Oath. This album is rightly legion, not only the annals of black metal but in music in general. It’s rich without grease while painting stories and imagery far better than most genre novels and film. Each song explores various forms of evil, from warning against tampering with forces you don’t or shouldn’t know (“A Dangerous Meeting”), to the joys of pledging yourself to Satan (“The Oath”), and even infernal love (“Welcome Princess of Hell”). It’s a sonic grimoire that should delight those whose hearts have love both for great metal and the macabre.
Seven people here are joining hands/They think they know the spirits to appear
If you want perfection in storytelling, then the opening track, “A Dangerous Meeting,” will give ample provision. The song revolves around seven people who join hands in a seance in the effort to contact a specific spirit. The veil between the realm of the living and the otherworld is a strange one, as the group has unwittingly invoked a demonic force that ushers them down, down, down. “Tonight seven souls are reaching Hell. Time was standing still.” The near-choir vocals during the chorus give the proceedings such an unearthly, epochal tone, perfectly underpinning the King’s statement, “They’re gonna get themselves killed.”
Night after night, I have this dream. You’re only living on borrowed time from your life.
“Nightmare” is a song that is militaristic in its heaviness and brimming with unforgettable imagery, once again underpinned by King Diamond’s rich-as-a-king and baneful-in-its-beauty vocals. The way his voice sings “Eyes of fire” in a lower register, only to soar into the highs again with “staring at me,” should be noted as a new literal definition of awesome. There are ethereal intonations throughout, with the song featuring an overall tonality of being eaten by a yellow-eyed, mal-hearted witch.
Stay away white magician! Young lovers and mourning wife/You’re not welcome on our
land/So I speak for the dead
When a song is titled, “A Desecration of Souls,” then you know the gauntlet is being thrown down! King Diamond’s vocals as the track open are raspy, rotted, and throttled. In short, tailor-made for a song that comes as a warning shot of an evil that you pray and hope remains unknown. As much as Mercyful Fate gets labeled as “satanic” or other devilish-sundry-descriptors, a number of their songs are telling people not to explore evil too closely. Now, does this mean there aren’t songs that are wholesale reveries in forces that reign supreme in the Inferno? Of course not! To state so would be ridiculous, but it is fascinating to note that subject matter has more shades than most care to examine.
(Then again when have fundamentalists of any stripe been good about looking beyond mere black and white? As if something as rich and precarious as life, death, and possible afterlife could be defined by mere basic boxes.)
Open wide the gates of Hell & come forth from the abyss
Speaking of the devil, the reverse of an admonishment for dallying and indulging with the dark arts occurs in great bold strokes with “The Oath.” The intro feels like an aural nod to the fathers of doom metal themselves, Black Sabbath. In fact, if you could bottle up “The Oath”’s beginning as a scent, it would have notes of wet moss, the dust of age, and hints of rich incense.
Well, that is until the crash of the main thrust of the song begins. Then it’s sulfur and ash time!
The titular oath is about, what else, pledging an allegiance to the great horned one, or as he’s referred to here as “Satan, Leviathan, Belial, Lucifer.” There’s literally a line that states, “I will kiss the goat.” If you want to truly live deliciously, then look no further than Mercyful Fate.
I turn off the lights. We like darkness. Now you call my name. You finally came
Never has the unearthly been more sweet, like a chilling embrace from a force you’re simultaneously enraptured and fearful of than in “Welcome Princess of Hell.” There is such an exquisite melody that runs full steam here. Couple that with some of King Diamond’s best vocal work as well as some excellent guitar work courtesy of longtime Mercyful Fate lead guitarist Hank Shermann and off-and-on longtime second lead guitarist Michael Denner and you have another strong-as-steel song.
Come to the Sabbath, Sabbath/The ceremony is proceeding/
It’s time to grant your wishes
Fittingly the last song off of this blistering album, “Come to the Sabbath”, is so epic that entire Viking sagas give it a woeful sad-sideye. The music, vocals, and lyrics all come together like a glowing bonfire flanking a night of arcane ritual and brazen blasphemy. In short, a dark festival to smite a million and one copycat pretenders to the black metal throne.
So there we have it! Our angel of light, the incomparable, beautiful, and ethereal Klaus Nomi and our angel of dark, with the immutable heaviness, melody, and eeriness of King Diamond and Mercyful Fate. These two sonic seraphim have left a mark on the musical landscape that remain crisply and firmly their own. Whether you’re devoutly religious in your heart or a stone-cold atheist, you would be hard pressed to deny the special presence and talent of these two artists.