The Puppet Master, the eleventh album by Danish metallers King Diamond, labors under several disadvantages. First, the title is almost identical to the most famous metal album of the 1980s, Metallica's Master of Puppets. Second, it is a concept album whose concept can best be described as "Pinocchio in reverse." Third, how many groups still have any fuel in the tank after ten albums?
For the uninitiated, King Diamond is the solo project of Mercyful Fate's lead singer, the corpse-painted rapscallion who introduced himself to the world by releasing--a Christmas single. The (now) dozen King Diamond albums are permanently locked in 1980s Euro-metal, a kind of aural Hot Tub Time Machine. It's this strange world where Pantera never existed.
So, on one hand, the technology here is not exactly state of the art. If you've heard Abigail or Don't Break the Oath, the eerie banshee wail and predilection for baroque touches are the same. No, King Diamond still doesn't understand "narrative" in music. Someone get this man a copy of Springsteen's "Atlantic City"! And it's so bafflingly uncool as metal that the ridiculous puppet love story will have most listeners recalling this:
For all that, this is one of my favorite metal albums. For one thing, King Diamond never blinks. There's no ironic chink in the entire presentation. For another, the guitar solos are stunning. Given that there isn't much room for "texture" in what is essentially musical theater, the bursts of lead guitar are never filler. For contrast, see Kirk Hammett's tragic addiction to the wah-pedal, or any recent Slayer album. Andy LaRoque never phones it in.
I suspect this is a hard sell, and to fans of extreme death metal and normal people alike, this will appear like "Toy Story 3: In a Metal Mood." Maybe so. It's certainly not what I would play if I was meeting my girlfriend's parents for the first time. But it is also so eccentric, so catchy, so self-convinced, that it is not something you will want to keep to yourself. Listening party?