Originally released in 1986, Fatal Portrait marks the debut of King Diamond, who had previously haunted Mercyful Fate. The album serves as an apt transition from the Satan- and occult-inspired writing that dominated Mercyful Fate and more toward straightforward, horror-oriented storytelling. Although full concept albums would not start until the release of Abigail, Fatal Portrait begins this tradition, with five songs of nine making up a narrative. Interestingly, the compositions are broken up, with the first four and the last song making up the story. The remainder of the compositions are either linked more toward the style of Mercyful Fate or showcase a much more dynamic, speed-metal-driven style.
The centerpiece of the music consists of the dueling guitars of Michael Denner and newcomer Andy LaRocque. There are facets of speed metal and New Wave of British Heavy Metal in the rhythm-lead interplays, with the solos in particular filled with plenty of crunch. The rhythms bring out a haunting vibe, one punctuated by the low notes of Timi Hansen and the percussive bursts of Mikkey Dee. Out front of course is King Diamond himself, and this album really showcases his high-end falsetto, which is really strong and powerful. Diamond does use other voices throughout, but he relies mainly on the falsetto.
The narrative showcased on Fatal Portrait tells the story of a haunted candle, the specter of which curses the narrator with one word, “Jonah” (a type of curse). Trying to escape the curse, he finds an old book, from which he speaks a rhyme to freak the spirit of the candle. It turns out the spirit is that of a little girl (a common theme throughout the Diamond discography) named Molly. Molly tells the narrator that seven years ago, a woman named Mrs. Jane kept her locked in the attic until Molly died. Mrs. Jane painted Molly’s portrait—hence the title—and placed it above her fireplace in an attempt to make the little girl immortal. However, Molly becomes a ghost, which haunts her, so Mrs. Jane speaks the rhyme and burns the portrait. Sadly, Molly, now free, haunts Mrs. Jane until she goes insane, implying that Molly will do the same to the narrator.
The remainder of the songs include the short instrumental “Voices from the Past” and the fan favorite “Halloween.” Diamond also pays tribute to the ferryman in “Charon” and, in my opinion, the first appearance of the entities known as “Them” on the composition “Lurking in the Dark.” Of course, the ideas behind “Them” come up later on the albums Them and Conspiracy.
Often a forgotten album, Fatal Portrait is essential listening for those interesting at learning how King Diamond got his start as a soloist. All the basics are in place, but the band is still working on what would become their signature sound and lyrical approach. Fatal Portrait also captures King Diamond’s voice at its most robust, before cigarettes would begin to take their toll. Now that King Diamond has given up smoking as a result of the heart attack he experienced, I am anxious to hear his voice again, as I hope it will return to sounding somewhat like it does on this album.