In the decades since Limp Bizkit, Papa Roach and their ilk putrefied hard-rock radio with one dumbed-down, primitive heavy metal rager after another, there have been a few adventurous groups who have been able to break through by operating outside of the box. The most recent and most surprising has been Ghost – a morbidly theatrical collective of Swedish hard rockers who wear ghastly costumes and play their instruments as if nu-metal never happened.
Ghost’s latest, Prequelle, has more in common musically with hair bands like Mötley Crüe, acid rockers like Iron Butterfly and even Andrew Lloyd Webber than anything Five Finger Death Punch or Godsmack are currently infecting the airwaves with. And yet the record’s cock-rock lead single, “Rats,” has quixotically wormed its way onto the same Rock Airplay chart as those groups. Ghost won a Grammy for their last album and even recently booked gigs in arenas in New York and Los Angeles, another feat that looks impossible on paper, considering the group’s singer and mastermind, Tobias Forge, dresses as a dead ecclesiastical figurehead (previously a pope, this time using the alias “Cardinal Copia”) and his bandmates are anonymous “nameless ghouls” who wear masks.
It would be all too easy to assume that the band’s appeal lies only in their mystery, but they’d be more of a flash in the pan if they were only about the image. Ghost are packing arenas because they’ve found the middle of the Venn diagram between metal toughness, arty self-indulgence and pop musicality. When they started out with 2010’s Opus Eponymous, they came off as a softer version of Metallica favorites, Mercyful Fate, but as they slowly embraced psychedelia and Sixties-style song craft on 2013’s Infestissumam and 2015’s Meliora, they’ve stumbled on to a signature approach that sounded at onace nostalgic, fresh and unique. On Prequelle, they’re exploring what they can do with it.
Many of the songs on the album, thematically, deal with the Dark Ages and the Black Plague – a metaphor Forge hopes also applies to societal ills of today – and require a suspension of disbelief in order to appreciate goofy lyrics like, “Every day that you fill me with hate, I grow stronger,” on “See the Light,” and the brazen Eighties worship throughout. Songs like “Danse Macabre” could easily complement a montage in a John Hughes movie. But there’s a maturity (and a lightness) to the music that’s more sophisticated than the usual dreck that their radio competition pumps out. The Broadway overtones on songs like “Pro Memoria” (“Don’t you forget about dying,” Forge sings like a huffy Jack Skellington) and “See the Light” show the band’s aspirations lie beyond headbanging – even if their ghastly shock-rock personae will never allow them to cross over into the mainstream.
Regardless of their ambitions, Ghost will have to be content being hard rock’s most interesting novelty, at least for the moment – a band with some degree of intellectualism in an arena that doesn’t always go for that sort of thing. The real challenge for them will be to keep it going without either alienating their radio listeners with heady rock-opera outings or by going full cheese metal and losing their prog rock base. For now, these Ghosts must enjoy commercial purgatory.