In an era when most rock acts eschew theatrics to focus all too seriously on “the music,” Ghost proves to be a throwback to a time when bands could do both.
The Swedish band’s evil aesthetic is unmistakable. Fronted by Papa Emeritus III — the third iteration of the anti-Pope vocalist — and backed by a five-piece band of masked Nameless Ghouls, Ghost often causes a stir with its image before ever playing a note.
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And what subversive notes they are. On Meliora, the band’s latest album, Ghost mixes equal parts Moody Blues and Deep Purple with influences of doomy Black Sabbath and old-school Metallica to create a fully modern, accessible rock sound that belies its Satanic image. There are no Cookie Monster vocals here, only Papa Emeritus singing his decidedly humanist message.
The music is unapologetically polished, anthemic and well-produced — as rock should be — and that same ethic carries over to Ghost’s “rituals,” as the band calls its concerts.
“It’s a very theatrical and entertaining show,” a Nameless Ghoul told Revue, noting the band wants its fans to leave concerts feeling a state of euphoria. “Expect solemn and divine presence, but expect to be happy from it rather than afraid.”
Call it accessible Satanism.
“Obviously, we’re using Satanic symbolism and Satanic terminology in order to paint our picture, but I would not fully and intellectually say, with everything that I know and stand for, that we are necessarily a Satanic band,” he said. “We’re not an extreme metal band at all. … We are actually quite accessible in our approach.”
But the band’s occult image comes with a certain liability, particularly in the more conservative parts of the country.
Even at the genesis of the band, the founding members realized they would need to let the music stand on its own. That’s why they posted their demos on MySpace months before ever releasing a photo of what the band looked like.
“We had this theory that it’s very important that people have the music first because we knew that the image would be quite strong,” a Nameless Ghoul said. “There were thousands of people listening to (the demos) before we actually released a picture of the band, and that was intentional. We wanted to be able to say, ‘Now we know that we took our first steps without people knowing shit about how we looked.’”
Thanks to three acclaimed albums (plus a covers EP), a relentless global touring schedule and a 2016 Grammy Award for Best Metal Performance — for “Cirice” off Meliora — Ghost has continued adding to its legions of devout fans.
Initially, they drew crowds of metal aficionados who liked the imagery and the band’s hard rock songs. But on any given night now, the crowd at a Ghost show features a diverse mix of men and women, young and old — even children, some of whom come dressed as the enigmatic Papa Emeritus.
For a Nameless Ghoul, it’s been a wild ride over the past six years, rising from obscurity to global renown. Despite the band’s outlandish and evil image, Ghost even gets airplay on commercial rock radio.
“We can tell a little that we have somewhat of a spread on the radio,” a Nameless Ghoul said. “All of a sudden, people sort of react. You can hear a portion of the crowd react to the more well-known songs, as in the ones that have been on the radio.”
While Ghost relished the cult underground following it amassed over the years, it’s also embraced its newfound broader appeal. In fact, that success acts as a driver for the musicians, according to a Nameless Ghoul.
“There’s always a few hundred people in the room that do not really know your band very well,” he said of Ghost’s latest Black To The Future Tour. “That doesn’t mean that they don’t like you, it just means that they don’t know some of the songs from the first two records. They might know the song from the radio really well, and they know the songs from your latest album.
“I think that the upside of that is that it keeps a band on its toes a little because you cannot completely rely on you ‘owning’ the crowd. You have to work in order to convince them — you have to sell in a way.”
Judging by the string of sellout shows in the U.S. (including a stop in Detroit last October) and abroad, it’s been easier for the band to sell its brand of theatrical rock than its Satanic image might suggest.
A Nameless Ghoul said Ghost’s success hinges on the musicianship and the brand of entertainment the band has created over the past few years, versus any dark intervention.
“We are here to entertain the people who are willing to be entertained by anything like us, and we’re here to entertain ourselves,” he said. “I’m sure we have a cool, fun and interesting image, but we would’ve never gotten anywhere without the music.”
A Nameless Ghoul on …
Winning a Grammy Award this year:
“You have to realize that it’s more of an eye-opening thing from a business point of view rather than people are collectively orgasming at the same time and buying the album. But there’s an attitude that is definitely open, there are a few doors that I guess weren’t there before. It’s a stamp of approval. … All of a sudden, you have that little bit of Grammy metal on your chest. It means that you are legit and not just a campy, doomy, theatrical rock band.”
Whether Ghost is a truly Satanic band:
“No, not in the sense that you mean that all members of the band are devoted Satanists. Speaking from a Bible-thumping point of view, our image and our schtick is definitely Satanic in our message. But that depends clearly on who you’re asking. … We are Satanic per default because we play rock and roll — ask anyone in Mississippi and you will have that answer. It’s all in the eyes of the beholder.”
Developing the band’s image:
“In my mind and the one person that was with me at the time, it was pretty evident that this is not just a T-shirt band. It doesn’t sound like a T-shirt band. The image or the vocal style or the lyrical themes — it just screams out something else. Right there and then, the whole imagery came, at least in theory, quite quickly. ‘It needs to be nameless, it needs to be faceless, and there should be some sort of preacher singing.’ … I think it was pretty much materialized in a day. It was just one evening. And then came the big task of making a record and sort of getting the imagery together and all that.”
Keeping band members’ identities a mystery and remaining nameless:
“Within the Ghost world, we will remain masked and officially nameless. But for us, there’s a big difference between being nameless and masked versus anonymous. … Within the Ghost context, for as long as we are officially going as Ghost, we will definitely remain masked while we are on official Ghost business. But whatever we do when we come off stage and whatever we do in other bands, that won’t remain masked. We cannot promise that. We are musicians, first and foremost.”
Planning for what happens if the nameless band members get outed for being in Ghost:
“We’ve already accepted that all good things will come to an end. This won’t be forever, and I think all of us feel that we want to do other things as well. We’ll just take that as it comes.”
Getting to know Ghost
• Musicians: Fronted by vocalist Papa Emeritus III, an anti-Pope character dressed in priestly garb and zombie-like mask; Five Nameless Ghouls, who remain robed and masked at all times and are identified only by elemental symbols, play rhythm and lead guitar, bass, drums and keyboards. All members’ identities remain obscured.
• Style: Theatrical hard rock, with elements of doom, glam and heavy metal
• From: Linköping, Sweden
• Albums: Opus Eponymous (2010); Infestissumam (2013); If You Have Ghost (2013), a covers EP; Meliora (2015)
• Key cuts: “Stand By Him,” “Ritual,” “Secular Haze,” “Year Zero,” “If You Have Ghosts,” “Absolution,” “He Is,” “Majesty”
• Miscellaneous: Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl has secretly dressed as a Nameless Ghoul and played drums live for Ghost. … Papa Emeritus III accompanies the band on kazoo during acoustic record store sets. … A keytar never looked so evil as when a Nameless Ghoul plays one for the solo in “Mummy Dust” during the band’s live shows. … All of Ghost’s songs are credited to “A Ghoul Writer,” whose identity is unknown.