Do the demonic clergymen from Sweden hold the key to the salvation of metal, or the entire world?
When Ghost entered the Internet’s collective consciousness* with their tongue-in-cheek Satanism and incense-filled rituals (please don’t call them concerts), some wrote the band off as a masked gimmick, while many metal fans derided their retro sound as insufficiently brootal by modern standards. Others like me fell hopelessly in love with the idea of Papa Emeritus, an anti-Pope singer in skullface makeup fronting a group of anonymous, black-robed Nameless Ghouls churning out metal riffs that hearkened to a more genteel era of the Devil’s music.
Still, it wasn’t until the release of this year’s “Meliora“ album that I realized Ghost was actually the band I’d been waiting for my entire life. I grew up on the stylized macabre visuals and baroque melodies of Castlevania games, the minor key earworms of bands like Iron Maiden and Alice in Chains, and endearingly grotesque/fantastic films from Hammer Horror to Beetlejuice and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Unsurprisingly, I fit right in with Ghost’s true believers at their Unholy/Unplugged show at Amoeba Music in August.
But what of the average music fan who likes their guitars distorted and their vocals clean? It’s said that every generation gets the music they deserve, and while Ghost’s visual gimmick has earned them comparisons to KISS and Slipknot, it’s possible their music and message is much, much more relevant than it seems in 2015.
While Ghost’s first two albums contained some campy references to Satan and witches that seemed to echo through a gothic castle filled with Marshall amps, Meliora begins with a sci-fi keyboard that almost sounds like a theremin and doesn’t contain a single utterance of “Lucifer” or “Satan.” Maybe it’s a calculated attempt at radio play (where it’s okay to say “skeet,” but not Satan), but it seems like Ghost has forgone simple name-checking, choosing instead to ask what we can actually learn from the first employee to suffer eternal consequences for talking back to his all-powerful boss.
Economic inequality is on the tip of everyone’s tongue leading up to the US Presidential Election (Ghost kinda-sorta accidentally endorsed Bernie Sanders for the office in an interview with a child). San Francisco was happy to remind me of this fact as I strolled to The Warfield on Market Street, where you can walk from your five star hotel to designer shops–as long as you don’t mind stepping over a penniless man sleeping in his own filth.
After a costume change out of his papal gown and mitre into a more relaxed outfit that suggested a turn of the century European lord, Papa Emeritus III made the album’s themes of self reliance and self love in a crony capitalist hellscape abundantly clear when he introduced “Mummy Dust,” a song that’s far from a fan favorite. “This song is about a god. A deity who we all know very well.” He identified that insidious controlling force not as God or the Devil, but as money. The chorus of “In God you trust / My mummy dust” suddenly seemed more linked to lyrics like “You’re the possessée of avarice / I’m the ruler of the earth / I’ll smother you in riches / til you choke on sordid mirth.” Papa isn’t here to deliver us into Satan’s arms, he’s here to remind us of the surprisingly Christian notion that the love of money is the root of all evil.
Isn’t that a message missing from music today? Taylor Swift and Jay-Z expect you to empathize with their struggle to command better streaming royalties in their mansions while you can’t leave the job that barely pays your rent because you won’t have healthcare otherwise. Today’s principled insurrectionist is often tomorrow’s deeply entrenched establishment goon, but it’s hard to imagine Ghost going down the Metallica path of suing their own working class fans for sharing digital bootlegs.
I had the pleasure of meeting all of Ghost’s members after the show, unmasked and in their normal guises. Charming to fans, down to earth, and good with kids, I didn’t take any pictures to prove it (out of respect for their anonymity). You don’t have to sneak backstage like I did to meet the men under the masks. Wait long enough by their bus after the show and they will sign your stuff, and even give you a warm hug if you ask Papa III nicely.
In a way, I kind of regret knowing who exactly is under the masks now, as Ghost works better when there could be anyone under the masks and costumes (even nude women, as suggested by the Year Zero video). Will the distinctive masks of the Nameless Ghouls–set to be mass-produced and sold in 2016–become synonymous with a populist movement like Guy Fawkes for hacktivists and Occupy protesters? Probably not. I’d really rather have Ghost continue their holy calling of saving music in general and metal in particular from its most meaningless excesses.
Ghost had the chance to do both the night before Halloween when they played Cirice on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Here’s hoping they get a massive Colbert Bump.
Opening for Ghost on this tour is Purson. Named after a demon king, the band is the latest project of creative force Rosalie Cunningham. Tall, pale, with long black center-parted hair and tight psychedelic-print bellbottoms, Rosalie looks like Morticia Addams if she fell in with Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin instead of Gomez. Fortunately, that’s exactly what her music sounds like: proggy, riff-oriented 70s psych-metal with just enough of a creepy carny touch in the keyboards and lyrics. Purson’s stage show has won over Ghost fans in every city and if their Spotify stream appeals to you at all, they will impress you live. The more I listen to them, the more I love Purson. I legitimately regret not talking to them while they chatted with fans in the lobby after their swaggering live set.
* For me it was when VICE shared their official video for “Secular Haze,” a spot-on recreation of the 1970s lo-fi music television aesthetic familiar to any classic metal fan. For others, it was when Metallica frontman James Hetfield wore a Ghost t-shirt during an interview.
TRIFFIN CONSTANTINE is a Los Angeles-based writer, filmmaker, and photographer. His interests include cats, concerts, and Castlevania. You can find him at Triffin.net.