Ghost have been going from strength to strength in recent years. When they burst onto the scene in 2010 they were more of a curiosity than a full-fledged part of the metal world, thanks to Papa Emeritus’ extravagant costumes, the fully disguised ‘nameless ghouls’ and the band’s knack for mixing blasphemous themes of death and the devil with downright catchy music and clean vocals. Certainly, they’ve never been a band that you could be indifferent about. And whilst the gimmicks might have been a nice way to get attention, it’s the music that keeps the fans there. Music which has remained of an extremely high caliber since day one (or Year Zero, if you will). So naturally there was considerable hype regarding the release of the band’s new album ‘Prequelle’ with a brand-new member of the satanic clergy at the helm.
In a way, the choice to ‘fire’ yet another Papa Emeritus (we were already on Papa Emeritus III by the third album) in favour of the significantly less intimidating Cardinal Copia looks quite a lot like a deliberate step away from their satanic image towards something which is still quirky but a bit less cumbersome. Since the satanic pope’s real identity has been making its way into the media anyway thanks to the legal quarrels between (nameless) band members, it was probably time for Tobias Forge to shed a couple of layers of papal robes and be a little freer. What does this mean for the music, though?
Whilst the band’s image and music have always been separate beasts, there is certainly something of a trend going on. When I last saw Ghost at Bloodstock festival in 2017, Papa/Forge shed most of his costume halfway through the set anyway, opting for a mostly black ensemble and a corpse-paint makeup style instead, marking a shift from the band’s first two albums to the slightly more classic rock style of Meliora. Yet another image change and (mock) personnel change looks to herald another significant shift in musical style for the band. In my opinion, it seems that they’re gradually trying to drop some of the gimmicky elements which made them famous but have gradually begun to hold them back in terms of experimentation. We can no longer expect spooky organs, satanic invocations and liberal use of slightly grammatically-incorrect Latin. Instead, the band have gone full steam ahead with the energetic classic rock with a twist that’s been part of their sound all the time, but has now come to the fore.
(Photo credit: www.rocksins.com)
The album opens with a creepy kids’ nursery rhyme which introduces the theme of the Black Plague / apocalypse that loosely ties the album together, then plunges straight into the lead single ‘Rats’. Straight away, you can recognize that typical Ghost sound, with the characteristic vocals and keyboards, although with a more simplistic structure and a slight 80’s touch, especially the OTT backing vocals. Is this a good direction? In my honest opinion, this isn’t one of the best tracks they’ve ever produced, which is a shame, although it’s certainly on the catchy end of the scale. As with any band, over the years the style does change and some will be more or less happy.
‘Faith’ kicks in with an utterly epic metal riff, which unfortunately doesn’t set the tone for the rest of the album. Whilst Ghost have never been extremely heavy, I sense the metal elements dropping away – none of the songs here have the heavy edge that, say, Mummy Dust did on the previous album. I’d have liked to hear a bit more of that riff, for sure.
Unfortunately there are one or two weaker moments on this album, especially ‘See the Light’ and ‘Dance Macabre’. ‘I wanna be wit’ you in the moonlight, I wanna be wit’ you all night’, Forge sings on ‘Dance Macabre’, a track which wouldn’t be terribly out of place on an Abba album. They are fellow Swedes, after all.
For some reason the most interesting stuff was left for the end of the album. Both instrumental tracks have left space open for Ghost to try something new musically and flex their creative muscles. ‘Helvetesfonster’ in particular has a slightly medieval sound and picks up on some of the musical themes earlier in the album, gradually seguing from classical melodies into energetic progressive rock.
My favourite track is probably ‘Pro Memoria’, something that would probably sound a little ridiculous coming from many other bands ‘don’t you forget about your friend death’… but when Cardinal Copia sings these lyrics over a background of perfectly executed keys, it ends up being a rather anthemic pean to death, which almost makes the idea of dying seem rather cheerful and fun. The final track, ‘Life Eternal’ isn’t bad either though, albeit it on the power ballad side. Forge has always had an uncanny ability to awaken the emotions, which he does here almost as well as on epic tracks like ‘Cirice’ on Meliora. It’s something that should almost be cheesy, but just because it’s Ghost, it isn’t.
Prequelle is probably never going to be my favourite Ghost album, but I can see the value in their maturing away from the satanic gimmicks and costumes and developing their style into something more universal. Whilst moments hark back to the 70’s or 80’s, others look forward to a new era of Ghost, which will definitely be something to keep an eye on.
Can’t get enough of Ghost? We have lots of Ghost merch to feed that obsession!