Sweden’s finest Ghost just played what might be their biggest and most important show yet in their ascendant careers. mxdwn has joyfully been tracking Ghost and their material going all the way back to their aptly named 2010 release Opus Eponymous. That super heavy release brought cred and adoration from many in heavy metal circles. The band’s presentation—a satanic cardinal that has gone by numerous permutations of the moniker Papa Emeritus (Tobias Forge) and a group of masked so-called “Nameless Ghouls”—instantly drew attention and headlines. Just a few short years later, their sophomore 2013 effort Infestissumam came out as if the band had already reached some kind of mythic cult status. And each album from there, Meliora, Prequelle and Impera, impressed more and more with each successive release. Putting aside any of their colorful characters or choices in how they branded themselves, Ghost and their principal band member/singer/songwriter Tobias Forge proved their most powerful quality: they have the songs, really great songs and boy, howdy, a lot of them. Tonight they headlined L.A.’s legendary massive venue the Kia Forum. Did they live up to the challenge of being the first heavy metal or at least metal adjacent band to arrive at arena tour headliner level literally since Megadeth in the early 1990’s?
Fans arriving at the giant circular venue were asked to secure their phones in sealed pouches before entering. No fan could take videos or photos of this show. The set was apparently being filmed professionally for some later possible release. Unlike most shows of this tour that featured Viking metal greats Amon Amarth, this show was all Ghost. No openers, no fuss, no other warm up. Just a giant venue filled to the third tier with fans elated to see a heavy band with a heavy handed presentation that unusually does not seem at all caught up with the purity concerns that handicap most metal bands. The band entered like a famed giant such as the Rolling Stones would, a video feed showing a private car arriving as the intro music played and the band poured out. As if arriving at the venue only the very second the show was slated to start. They jumped right into the ‘80s power rock of “Kaisarion” with Papa Emeritus’ upper register howl. Unlike some metal shows where a frantic mosh pit would greet the opening moments of distorted chords, here the crowd joyously banged their fists in unison as the song nimbly danced between it’s frenetic guitar scales and vocal breakdowns.
The wonderful call-and-response of “Rats” from 2018’s Prequelle followed but it’s underlying theme of a coming plague and its destructive power on society as a whole—itself an oddly prescient look at what became all our lives during the COVID-19 pandemic—didn’t underpin the mood. The atmosphere exhibited none of that fearful dread, it was all fans chanting and singing with overjoyed glee. “Faith” was a sermon encompassing almost entirely Tobias Forge’s expert knack of just super crack melodies fitting together like an enrapturing and simple puzzle. Haters in the metal community decried the next song “Spillways” and its originating album Impera as being more like Abba-esque pop than some obtuse, deliberately inaccessible sludge. Forge responded in press interviews wisely indicating he loved Abba, taking no offense to the comparison at all. Live, “Spillways” played like Freddie Mercury/Queen big ‘70s rock in the best way, a bombast of staccato pianos and soaring vocal lines. The serious metal community’s obsession with self-sabotage is an odd thing. For a genre, where there are so many positive attributes to put on the scales – catharsis, freedom, technical skill, and yes for those not well versed in the genre, a multitude of diversity and diverse styles—its beyond puzzling how determined some fans are to try to curtail the genre’s ability to reach larger audiences. Why not amass power? Why not build serious constituency? Why not make it easier for artists in this vein of style to be able to make a real living wage? Would not all those aspects make for more and better heavy metal music? More ideas on the table. More opportunity. A legit farm system and a legitimate notion of what the grand prize looks like. Instead, save for Ghost no metal band has punched through to this very stature since Metallica, Megadeth and Slayer did three decades back.
Digressions aside, Meliora standout “Cirice” came next, coupled with its evocations of salvation outside of the Christian/Catholic faith. Not played as much in recent years, “Absolution” with its foreboding lines “Ever since you were born you’ve been dying / Every day a little more you’ve been dying / Dying to reach the setting sun,” that ultimately lead to the snarling release of, “Put your hands up and reach for the sky / Cry for absolution!” Bookending breakout recent hit “Call Me Little Sunshine” were a pair of debut album cuts “Ritual” and “Con Clavi Con Dio” which while both more of a stampede forward in raging pace, still showed the incredible criss-cross of bass, guitar and vocal melodies the band is capable of even at their genesis. “Call Me Little Sunshine” in the middle of the song sandwich has to be the most confident and fun song to feature a lyric so direct such as “Call me ‘Little Sunshine’ / Call me Mephistopheles,” this one of the band’s numerous references, odes or pledges of fealty to the so called dark lord / beast of many names. One of the standout tracks from Impera, “Watcher in the Sky” might have been one of the evenings few missteps, as it features a fantastic climax balancing dueling guitar leads and the song’s chorus, but Papa Emeritus fled the stage as that climax began. It was evident why just a moment later, but the song lacked the punch it deserved with him not present to lead the vocals in the outro.
Mere seconds after “Watcher in the Sky” concluded, fans cheered with excitement as it became apparent a pianist and a small string section had seated at a smaller stage at the back half of the arena. Forge appeared seconds later as if he teleported there. After some playful banter, awkwardly but perceptively acknowledging how their performance might help lift the crowd but could not deliver them from the dark and difficult struggles all are dealing with in this post-COVID-19 time, he led the small cadre of players through the band’s famous cover of Roky Erickson’s “If You Have Ghosts.” That cover being something of a rallying cry earlier in the band’s career, there was a loud singalong with the song’s quirky, lycanthropic lyrics. Papa Emeritus IV (as he most recently labeled his character) then donned a boxing robe and gloves and triumphantly was escorted back to the stage as if he had just won a prizefight. This night featured the live debut of one of the most unusual songs the band has created yet, a sprawling and mutating number that shifts between symphonic horns, musical theater phrasing and unusual backing vocals called the “Twenties.” Here, the band was joined by a group of dancers clad in Halloween-esque skeleton costumes. The song may not rock with the usual verve fans are used to amidst the rest of the songs on their latest album, but delivered in this context, its theatrics fully clicked. Hard to imagine the show without it now after having seen it performed.
Darker tones and atmospherics set the stage for one of the evening’s most powerful moments, the darkly sinister choir chant of “Belial / Behemoth / Beelzebub / Asmodeus / Satanas / Lucifer” from the opening of “Year Zero” from Infestissumam. Some twenty-five years back the U.S.A. was gripped with controversy as freedom of speech laws were tested like never before when Marilyn Manson started to rise in popularity. Manson was famous in those days for ripping up pages from bibles during his shows. This got him banned from numerous shows on the eastern seaboard of the U.S.A., both on that year’s famous Ozzfest tour and his own headlining shows. Never self described as decidedly a Satanist, he was an uncomfortable exploration of the darker ignored problems of the American public. Here, this might be one of the first times that a band brought a crowd of more than 14,000 strong in unison to sing cathartically “Hell Satan, welcome Year Zero” and there will be no pushback whatsoever. In a time long after the massive child sexual abuse scandals that rocked the catholic faith, nobody is going to mount a protest or try to ban Ghost. Hearing this one shouted (whether figuratively or not) to the heavens, was a wild thing to behold.
As the set entered its final segment, Ghost began firing out some of their most impressive cuts, each one mounting to deliver more and more amazement as they were rendered. “He Is” was the evening’s one arguably ballad-esque moment, it is their own take on a devotional a la ‘70s religious rock but with the eye-opening first verse lyrics, “We’re standing here by the abyss / And the world is in flames / Two star-crossed lovers reaching out / To the beast with many names.” It lands as a welcome gearshift before everything snaps into full throttle building to the night’s finale. Instrumental number “Miasma” delivers the greatest moment of levity, where in the band’s mythology Papa Emeritus’ father Papa Nihil (singer for another era version of the band from decades past that never truly existed) is brought out in a full-size coffin. The old man apparently fully dead is hit with a defibrillator, comes back to life just back in time to be handed a saxophone in order to play the song’s saxophone solo. Forge returns to the stage after that bit, gets a giant cheer and furthers the story that Papa Nihil was his father claiming that he was a great singer in his time. He offers to sing a song from Papa Nihil’s career and then dives into their surprise Tik Tok smash hit “Mary on a Cross,” itself a fascinating success as it is essentially if the band imagined themselves as a ‘60s psych rock band.
The set ended with a one-two punch of drastically different dimensions with the rampaging glory of “Mummy Dust” and the world-weary intricacy of “Respite on the Spitalfields.” From its opening notes the former “Mummy Dust” sets a triumphant tempo layering in keyboard melodies with precision skill until all the vocal melodies come together for one final crescendo of incredible, vital, orgiastic power. “Respite on the Spitalfields” plays like a not-too-somber requiem for a civilization about to fall in complete destruction. Forge offers no solace for the destruction, nor plan for the rescue of what is failing, only narrating its inevitability with the lines, “We will break away together / I’ll be the shadow / You’ll be the light / Nothing ever lasts forever / We will go softly Into the night.” And of course, even though initially claiming, “Respite on the Spitalfields” would be their final song, no true rock show would be complete without a proper encore. Forge returned only a mere moment later in another of the night’s many costume changes and teased the crowd pining for three more songs claiming initially they would only play two before letting go of the jest and admitting they had three more before they were done.
The first was the other side of their ‘60s psych rock re-envisioning of themselves with cocksure swagger, “Kiss the Go-Goat.” But no other two songs would make quite as much sense as what followed to end the show. First, the explosive glee of “Dance Macabre” came forth in all of its ‘70s thrash power. With a simple AC/DC-like main riff that echoes the vocal refrain of the chorus, the song revels in a spirit of a love found not of counterculture but with someone discovered within a counterculture. Forge leads the entire stadium through a word-for-word elated delivery of the song’s dance worthy chorus, “Just wanna be / wanna be wit’ you / in the moonlight / Just wanna be / wanna be wit’ you / all night.” It’s a rock song delivering cathartic power on a level that most journalists claim to experience but rarely ever has surfaced in the last thirty years of music. It’s a playful nod to “Danse Macabre” of old, tongue in cheek playing with the concept of the inevitable “dance with death” and the importance of seizing the moment. And lastly, “Square Hammer” finishes off the show with another piece of exhilarating rock, the lighter ‘70s-style tones accompanied heavily by keyboards leading to the razor sharp chorus riffs accompanying the excellent melodies of “Are you on the square? / Are you on the level? / Are you ready to swear right here, right now / Before the devil?” It’s apparent in this moment just how masterful of a creation it is, taking all of the trappings of vintage rock and creating something that’s hard not to just want to start over and hear again the second you finish it.
The band warmly thanks the crowd and takes their bows to end off the evening from there and deservedly the crowd stays largely in place cheering wildly even though the show is fully over. It’s been a long road for the band, one that Forge even alluded to at one point, indicating how they first played Los Angeles at The Roxy (a small but famous club on the Sunset Strip for those not familiar with L.A.) and how each time they came back the shows got a little bigger. This is a breakthrough moment. Those rare things you hear about, but rarely are there to see. Where something exceptional and growing graduates to a legendary status. In this case, it is a band that will be known as a breakout success that will live in the annals of history for all time eternal. It is a moment we are witnessing when a band reveling in the dark imagery of Satanism and the typically difficult-to-make-successful aesthetic of heavy metal/hard rock became an unstoppable juggernaut. If there was ever any doubt, see it and believe it now. There is a new king in town. Their name is Ghost and they are here to stay.
Call Me Little Sunshine
Con Clavi Con Dio
Watcher in the Sky
If You Have Ghosts
Twenties (first time ever live)
Mary on a Cross
Respite on the Spitalfields
Kiss the Go-Goat
File photo: Boston Lynn Schulz