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Undoubtedly the breakout band in heavy music over the past decade, it’s been a wild ride for Swedish creeps Ghost. Melding elements of hard rock, doom, classic metal, psychedelia and outright guitar-pop – then daubing on the corpsepaint – their combination of deceptively digestible sound, occultist ethos and anti-ecumenical aesthetic has captured the imagination of music fans and sling-shotted their live 'rituals' into arenas on both sides of the Atlantic.
Of course, mysterious mainman Tobias Forge (aka Papa Emeritus I-IV, aka Cardinal Copia) has had his struggles. In 2013, the band was forced to temporarily rebrand as Ghost B.C. for legal reasons in the U.S. The initially intriguing, fluid anonymity of his bandmates’ Nameless Ghoul personas (even Dave Grohl apparently once donned the cowl) became a sticking point, too, as the collective sued Tobias in 2017, failing in their suit but also dispelling some of the precious mystique.
That Tobias has endured – not just surviving, but flamboyantly thriving in the heightened spotlight – feels like proof his band are here to stay. New music is eagerly anticipated in the not-so-distant future but, for now, we rank the 20 tracks on which Ghost have built their unholy empire thus far...
‘I was carried on a wolf's back, to corrupt humanity / I will pummel it with opulence, with corpulence and greed!’ Arriving on a wave of staccato percussion, spiked with gnarls of riffage and flashes of synth, this pounding cut from 2015’s Meliora – named after the insubstantial detritus of years past – plays out as one of Ghost’s most compelling indictments of the avarice of mankind. Although its creeping instrumentation, growled baritone and choral climax don’t exactly show the Swedes at their most inventive, Mummy Dust has been elevated massively in the live arena, with Papa leaning into the lurching malevolence before showering the audience with 'money'. In Ghost we trust.
Ghost might have traversed a full spectrum from gouging metal via classic rock to shimmering guitar-pop thus far, but the further their sound has strayed into the light, the harder the lyrics have drilled down into darkness. It’s never been truer than on this underrated ditty from Prequelle. A textbook three-and-a-half-minutes built of sweet acoustic and rich electric guitars surging towards its massive chorus, you can practically taste the relish as Tobias ladles the syrup onto some of his darkest words. ‘While you sleep in earthly delight, someone's flesh is rotting tonight / Like no other to you, what you've done you can not undo...’
After the baroque organ intro of Deus Culpa, it’s the throbbing bassline of Con Clavi Con Dio that truly pulls back the sacristy drapes on Ghost’s compelling debut. Translating crudely as 'With Nails, With God', the title Con Clavi Con Dio is actually an attempt at clever wordplay, drawing comparisons with the nails of crucifixion and the conclave of bishops at the head of the church as Tobias sings, ‘Our conjuration sings infernal psalms and smear the smudge in bleeding palms.’ Theological musing aside, it’s the dark swirl of sound here that truly draws the listener in, with gauzy layers of guitar, synth and vocals – not to mention the devilish tritone interval – building into a towering cathedral of subversion.
No relation to the oft-covered George Michael classic, the fourth single from 2018’s Prequelle feels like a defiant statement of the band’s arena-straddling prowess twelve years in. Powered by snarling six-strings and pounding drums – custom engineered to get tens of thousands of fists pumping – it’s seething proof that this band’s heaviest sounds are still among their best. At the same time, we get a furious flash of the man behind the mask as Tobias takes aim at his ex-Nameless Ghouls with some serious lyrical barbs: ‘The Luddites shun the diabolical, a fecal trail across the land / Although it stinks, feels and looks identical / And a pack of fools can take the stand.’ Oooft.
Riffing on the popular Latin phrase 'Per aspera ad astra' ('Through hardship to the stars'), Per Aspera Ad Infini literally translates as 'Through Hardships To Hell.' Its churning sound diabolically matches up. Layering on riffage that calls to mind the epic doom of heroes like Candlemass, marching-beat percussion and a lyrical treatment revolving around that title chanted as a mantra, there is sinisterness throughout. Its defining quality, however, is the fragility and despair Tobias manages to summon as he begs with ecstatic fervour, ‘Oh Satan, devour us all / Hear our desperate call.’
The lead single from 2013’s sophomore LP Infestissumam immediately built on the spooky foundations laid by Opus Eponymous with broader pantomime atmospherics and – on its live premiere in Linköping, Sweden, where Papa Emeritus II was unveiled – the first branches of their expanded mythos. A carnivalesque organ sets the tone of mischievous eeriness before the pendulous musicality hits full swing with Papa inviting us in: ‘You know that the fog is here omnipresent when the disease sees no cure / You know that the fog is here omnipresent when the intents remain obscure – forevermore!’ As if their mainstream-invading intent wasn’t clear enough, its single release even came with a B-side cover of ABBA’s I’m A Marionette featuring Dave Grohl on drums!
Another barely-veiled reference to Tobias’ struggles with ex-bandmates, See The Light is also one of his band’s most shamelessly uplifting compositions. Feeling like a positivist '80s anthem – shot through with a little venom – its tinkling keys, soaring synths and understated, rumbling riffage propel an effortlessly memorable message about transcending the ill-will of one’s antagonists. Sing it together: ‘Every day that you feed me with hate, I grow stronger!’
Riding on the metronomic beat of their Monstrance Clock, the closer on Ghost’s third album (translated from Latin as 'In The Absence Of God') is an extravagant exercise in arch theatrics. Benefiting from Klas Åhlund’s grandiose production, Tobias comes across as both demon and angel, extending his dark invitation: ‘The world is on fire, and you are here to stay and burn with me / A funeral pyre, and we are here to revel forever.’ Concluding with a hymn-like Latin chorus, it feels like the ultimate corruptive culmination: a musical sacrament truly touching only to those in the know.
The track that started it all. Inspired by that irresistible lead riff – stumbled upon while practising for another band – Tobias foresaw a deep, dark well of potential waiting to be tapped and threw himself in headlong. Although Stand By Him’s schlocky lyrics feel gleefully on-the-chin nowadays (‘The Devil's power is the greatest one / When His' and Hers' holiest shuns the sun / A temptress smitten by the blackest force / A vicar bitten blind in intercourse’), they paved the way for everything that followed. On top of that, its soaring ‘It is the night of the witch...’ chorus line even rivals that of Donovan’s Season Of The Witch (an obvious influence) for sheer spellbinding catchiness.
One of the less immediate tracks on Ghost’s second album was also its most important. A staggering, seven-and-a-half minute opus that unfolds from its sorrowing piano line and Papa’s desiccated hiss through a swaggering midsection to a conclusion full of proggy bombast; this was proof of the untold breadth and depth of their vision and sound. Pushing from their basis in '80s classic rock through the looser sounds of the '70s and right into '60s psychedelia, this ode to the titular zombie queen (‘Up from the stinking dirt she rises, ghastly pale / Shape-shifting soon but now she's rigid, stiff and stale’) feels like Tobias’ first real attempt to stretch his (cursed black) wings and remains amongst their most rewarding compositions.
Anyone who remembers Ghost’s ethereal emergence from the shadows likely does so with this earworm writhing in the back of their mind. Combining the slick melodies and wry fatalism of prime Blue Öyster Cult with the crunchiness of Pentagram and Saint Vitus – soothing organs and a driving bassline pulling away – they had the musical formula nailed. It was the imagery contained therein, however (all ‘bedouins and nomads’, fallen angels and ‘smells of dead human sacrifices from the altar bed’) that captured the imaginations of a congregation ravenous for a fresh take on ancient evil. Here, the doors to the sanctum were truly open.
Tying into the Ghost B.C. renaming necessitated by their Stateside legal wranglings (the year zero being the pivotal point between the B.C. and A.D. timelines), Infestissumam’s sixth track developed into one of the greatest showcases of their dark majesty. Opening with a powerful Gregorian chant (‘Belial, Behemoth, Beelzebub, Asmodeus, Satanas, Lucifer’) calling to mind Jerry Goldsmith’s legendary soundtrack to The Omen, Ave Satana, the direct riffage and bludgeoning choruses that follow hammer home a sense of sheer monstrosity. Typically, the Year Zero concept is subverted, with Forge (and, reportedly, guitarist Martin Persner) picturing an ancient antagonist far predating biblical times: ‘Since dawn of time the fate of man is that of lice, equal as parasites and moving without eyes / A day of reckoning when penance is to burn, count down together now and say the words that you will learn.’
Just when you think you’ve got Ghost figured out, they pull something like this. The first of Prequelle’s two extended instrumentals feels like showboating from an outfit whose legitimacy some fans had dared question following the acrimonious departure of so many players. Rearing into view as an expansively primitive space-rock soundscape, layering up into an '80s prog epic, then exploding in a kaleidoscopic whirlwind of synths, Michael Jackson riffs and the best metal saxophone this side of Norway’s Shining, it was proof that Tobias’ vision would not be dictated solely by his own crooning King Diamond fixation and that it, frankly, knew no bounds.
Four years since their formation, Elizabeth felt like the break Ghost had been waiting for. Released on 7” vinyl (with the less-ear-catching Death Knell on B-side), the Mercyful Fate comparisons were immediate, with many seeing the sense of eerie grandeur and kitsch luridity at play as directly descended from the great Danes’ 1987 classic Devil Eyes. An ode to infamous Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Bathory – alleged serial killer and bloodbather – sees Papa getting his teeth sunk in lyrically: ‘Her pact with Satan, her disposal of mankind / Her acts of cruelty and her lust for blood makes her one of us!’ The fine balance between sensuality and sin has yet to be bettered.
The lead single from 2018’s Prequelle feels like a bridge between the (relative) heaviness of the band’s past and the unfettered theatricality of the album that was about to follow. Powered by a straightforward riff and piercing organs, dazzling solos and a rogue harpsichord, its introduction of the Black Death concept in which the album would wallow (refracting contemporary grievances through the filthy lens of the 14th century bubonic plague) felt both atmospherically appropriate and deliciously alive. The Scandi-pop ‘oooh-aahs’ in the chorus remain one of the band’s most gleefully irreverent touches, too. And the question of whether ‘them filthy rodents still coming for your souls’ is reference to Tobias’ old bandmates has provided rich fuel to keep the metal gossip mill turning.
In the Roman Catholic church, the monstrance is an (often ornate) receptacle in which the consecrated communion host is displayed for veneration. A monstrance clock was an aesthetically-similar Renaissance-era timekeeping device capable of displaying date, time and a wealth of other celestial information, often used in church rituals. We suspect that Ghost just liked the faintly cheeky sound of the phrase when quickly spoken. Still, the song they wrought from that initial giggle is utterly unforgettable. Deliberately paced and overflowing with evangelical zeal, a slow build flourishes into a splendiferous closing chorus that’s turned many an arena into a church of the Dark Lord: ‘Come together, together as one / Come together for Lucifer's son!’
If Rats was pandering somewhat to the existing fanbase, Dance Macabre was the other side of the coin. A shamelessly retro '80s-style power ballad that’s as light on overt Satanic references as it is heavy on the cheese, some fans saw it as a form of selling-out: a dilution of devilish imagery in service of greater American radio-rock appeal. Perhaps they had a point. From its fist-pumping percussion and effervescent guitar solo to that ‘wanna, be wit chu’ chorus hook, however, it’s executed with enough committed precision and knowing panache to stand on its own terms, and a whole legion of new fans couldn’t help be swept along through the gateway and on to far darker delights. Tobias’ explanation that this is a soundtrack for people living like there’s no tomorrow – as many literally did during the plague – adds an extra dimension. Best experienced with the gleefuly vampiric music video.
It’s strange how things work out sometimes. Originally conceived with producer Klas Åhlund as a nine-minute instrumental deep cut, Cirice was chopped down and reworked into Meliora’s irresistible lead single – becoming the song that really kickstarted Ghost’s stratospheric ascent. An insidious opening combusts into an infernal crescendo before lurching into the band’s most bludgeoning riff to date. All the while, Papa’s beguiling vocals reach out, full of dark romance, for new converts to their corrupted congregation. 2016’s GRAMMY for Best Metal Performance felt like just reward for such inspired work. The Roboshobo-directed music video – featuring a school talent show that’s almost as horrific as the ones we remember – is another stone cold standout.
Following the unprecedented success of Meliora, Ghost found themselves suddenly commanding crowds far larger – and more diverse – than they’d seen before. Most of the ingredients for these grander live rituals were already in place, but they lacked the barn-burner early in their set to get these massive rooms onside. Dropped as the standalone original track on the Popestar covers EP, Square Hammer gave them just that. Abstractly melding the cultist themes of Satanism and Freemasonry, the concept of selling one’s soul – ‘ready to swear right here, right now, before the devil’ – was hardly new, but the outright pop energy of those surging synths and that exuberant chorus clearly signalled that the game had changed.
If Ghost’s diabolical mission statement is to make the Luciferian ideals more palatable to the masses, then He Is must be their masterpiece. So perfectly camouflaged – with twanging acoustic guitars and reverberating vocals that could’ve been nicked from the golden age of AOR – is their message, that they could drop this at any Christian rock festival and only the most switched-on devotees would know the difference. Openly indebted to giants like Kansas and Journey (and less openly to more recent occult acoustic acts like Ancient VVisdom), there’s a burning light to the sound. The use of divine-sounding Latin (‘Nostro Dispater, nostr'alma mater’) to identify the titular 'He' as the dark lord of the underworld is just another characteristically twisted masterstroke. Kneel at their altar.
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The ultimate new music countdown – every Friday!
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