Written by: Andrew Kirkpatrick
Ghost are like a real life version of a fake band that would be the subject of a mockumentary.
For the uninitiated, Ghost are a Swedish heavy metal outfit who have a penchant for the dramatic. But unlike many hard rock bands that use an over-the-top aesthetic purely to achieve shock and awe, Ghost present their ridiculous image in a way that’s genuinely clever and funny. Ghost have masterminded too much fantastic, tongue-in-cheek absurdism to delve into fully, so I’ll just give you a few gems: 1) the band’s three frontmen so far, Papa Emeritus I through III, may or may not all be the same person — it would be hard to tell considering no one knows the real names of anyone in the band, and they all dress up like the pope, if the pope was a zombie-demon, 2) they just finished a small-venue acoustic tour which featured the band’s two guitarists, and Papa Emeritus prominently playing the kazoo 3) they somehow signed a deal with a major label to record their sophomore album in Nashville, until they ran into issues finding a choir who would sing their satanic lyrics, and 4) said satanic lyrics may or may not be completely ironic.
Ghost are such an entertaining group simply in terms of their real-life antics that their music has largely been secondary to many people’s appreciation of their presence in metal. Their 2010 debut, Opus Eponymous, was a pretty solid piece of old-school metal, but once they got on the road and hit the press to give audiences a taste of their astonishing ridiculousness, it became clear that these guys would be a hit no matter what they put out. That much was confirmed by their sophomore record, Infestissumam, which by any logic, should have been a flop. Its production was reportedly pretty costly and the result ranged from middling to straight up bad. But it still sold a lot, launched another huge international tour, and even garnered the band a few Swedish Grammies.
Frankly, I think Ghost could have coasted for quite a while purely on the strength and humor of their image. Their 2013 discussion with Pitchfork is one of the best interviews I’ve ever read, and they seem to get up to something just as weird and entertaining at least a couple times every year.
But with their latest effort, Meliora, Ghost have crafted something quite special. The grim brand of goofiness, sharp wit, and histrionics of their image have finally been translated to wax, and the result is nothing short of spellbinding.
If you like your metal records driven by anger and intensity, then you’re out of luck. In fact, if you like your metal records to sound like metal records, you’ll also be disappointed. Ghost’s sound across Meliora tends toward pop-rock with a dose of Queen-gone-creepy theatricality marked by grandiose flourishes of eerie organ chords, huge choral vocals, and powerful guitar leads. Even the brief acoustic interlude that plays out on the mid-album cut, “Spoksonat,” registers as cinematic simply in how it leads into the massive, hair-raising “He Is,” serving as a sort of calm before the storm.
The record was produced by Klas Ahlund, known best for working alongside Swedish superstar Robyn, and his poppy punch is felt all throughout. Verses, bridges, and breakdowns are straightforward and unadorned while choruses soar to heights to a degree I haven’t heard for a while on a rock record. Take the excellent opener, “Spirit,” which features a chugging rhythm guitar riff and quick drum and bass hits underscored a garishly spooky organ. It’s tightly controlled, but has just enough personality that you know things have got to get more eccentric. And sure enough they do, as a leaping theremin fill — yes, a theremin fill — kicks off a stadium-filling hook imbued with apocalyptic urgency. Here Papa Emeritus (the Third) repeatedly belts out “Spirit! / Absent!” Some dedicate their hooks to the ladies, some to good times and youthful rebelliousness — Ghost’s go out to the lost and hellbound.
Luckily, the vibrancy and scope of Meliora’s opener persists all throughout the record. The mid-album highlight, “Majesty,” features a nice triplet feel verse accented by sinister, echoing vocals and heavy-as-lead guitar and bass riffs that smash their way into the mix like a jackhammer. Then, all of the sudden, that groove dissipates, and the song ascends into a light, blissfully hazy piece of power-pop and that grimey, hellfire-spewing bass transforms (via satanic magic) into a warm, delicately played fretless riff.
Even at it’s absolute heaviest, Ghost keep their brilliant flamboyance close. The pummeling “Cirice” is driven by a Sabbath-esque riff that descends seemingly infinitely, along with one of the most prominently mixed kick drums I’ve ever heard in a rock track. It’s the most traditionalist metal song on the entire album, so naturally there’s a soft piano break over which Papa Emeritus gently croons “I can feel the thunder breaking inside your heart.” Wait a minute…
If you’re reading these track descriptions, asking yourself if Ghost are going too far into the deep-end of ridiculousness then my answer is that they are indeed. But when musical absurdity is so well and consistently produced, arranged, and performed as Meliora, it becomes hard to scoff at. Ghost’s take on the occult and macabre is sort of like Tim Burton’s — it may be thoughtfully crafted and even sophisticated at times, but it’s also meant to be enjoyed with a smile on your face, subverting of the dourness that usually comes with such topics.
More than anything though, I give Ghost props for finally taking their music all the way off the rails for the simple reason that this sonic evolution renders their ludicrous aesthetic as something greater than a gimmick. Their image is now in symbiosis with their music.
They’ve earned it.