My introduction to Sweden’s most popular satanic metal band came in October 2014, when I found myself on a weeklong road trip up the East Coast with four budding filmmakers about half my age. Our second day out, when one of them determined that I’d never heard Ghost, he popped in Opus Eponymous, the band’s 2010 debut.
It was not the incomprehensible shriek and burn of Norwegian black metal that I was expecting, but instead melodic, majestically orchestral and infectiously catchy. The sheer fist-pumping pomposity of it all felt more like an old Kansas album — when the lilting vocals kicked in, I was still convinced it was Kansas. But with the first line — “Lucifer! We are here for your praise! Evil one!” — well, I was pretty much hooked. Even in my 50s, I’m a hopeless sucker for a snappy toe-tapper about Satan. Lucky for me, every last song Ghost has recorded is about Satan or, um, … OK, it’s just Satan. By the end of the third song, Opus Eponymous became the soundtrack for the rest of the trip.
Taking his overall aesthetic cues from horror movies and EC comics, lead vocalist Papa Emeritus dresses in bloodred papal finery complete with towering miter.
Stylistically the band’s music is a distinct throwback to the dark and complex craftings of Black Sabbath and Blue Oyster Cult, often accentuated by full choral arrangements. In terms of spectacle, theatricality and mythology, Ghost is a glorious throwback to the early ’70s — think Alice Cooper facing onstage attacks by a giant Cyclops and KISS’ extravagant pyrotechnics, comic-book face paint and sci-fi outfits. The members of Ghost also always appear in disguise, their identities a closely guarded secret (it’s rumored that Dave Grohl has played with them a few times). Taking his overall aesthetic cues from horror movies and EC comics, lead vocalist Papa Emeritus dresses in bloodred papal finery complete with towering miter. The other five musicians, known only as “Nameless Ghouls,” are cloaked in identical hooded robes. The band has woven an elaborate mythology about themselves: Each new release sees a change in their musical approach, costumes and backstory. It’s all so outrageously over the top, so delightfully pretentious — but impossible not to admire on some level.
This possibly intentional disjunction between the sound and message, offers “trappings” used by the “darkest of metal bands years ago,” says high priest of the Church of Satan Peter H. Gilmore, but their light and repetitive sound is an entirely different direction — a kind of “bait and switch.” Since authentic Satanism is an individual philosophy, Gilmore adds, bands attempting to be “avatars for all Satanism are missing the boat.” Gilmore is not a Ghost fan.
Nevertheless, with its teen-pleasing mix of occult symbolism, that insidious backbeat and rumors of subliminal messages encouraging listeners to do, oh, all sorts of bad things, heavy metal by nature has always been a genre specifically engineered to scare the hell out of parents and evangelicals. Sure enough, over the years, Ghost has had a devil of a time getting their albums pressed, professional choral groups to sing their lyrics, chain stores to carry their records, and mainstream radio stations to play them.
Then something hilarious and deeply subversive happened. Maybe because the band sounds so much like Kansas, parents and Wal-Mart managers simply stopped paying attention. Ghost began quietly infiltrating mainstream American culture. Nowadays they fill stadiums, they’ve won multiple Grammys and their latest single, “Square Hammer,” hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts, making them only the second Swedish band in history to achieve such a thing. In these dark and sinister days, maybe it only makes sense a satanic metal band would become the new ABBA.
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This year, OZY is going Around the World, bringing you untold stories from every single country on the map, one day at a time, to introduce you to new people, new trends and new places.