Art by Emily Avendano
Story by Daniel Anderson
By now, the majority of audiences are familiar with the modern heavy metal aesthetic. Relatively harsh vocals and technical playing styles have become clichés among many metal acts today.
However, such is not the case for a particular Swedish metal act, Ghost.
This band has opted to take a more retro approach to the metal genre, straying away from most of the gimmicks of modern metal. Rather, they cherry-pick various sounds and styles from other hard rock and metal subgenres like thrash metal, doom metal, and the new wave of British heavy metal, all without sounding like they are deriving from one specific act. There is more to their approach to metal than just referencing its various subgenres, however.
Ghost also derives much of their instrumentation from other genres entirely, such as prog rock, pop rock, psychedelic rock, and even Christian music (to emphasize their blasphemous image, of course). In doing so, this band has had more time to focus on key elements such as songwriting and melody.
Ironically, Ghost has stood out among the masses not by advancing the genre forward, but by revisiting what made the metal genre so captivating in the first place.
Ever since the release of their debut Opus Eponymous in late 2010, they have barely had shortages of praise; it seems their older style has helped them reap the benefits.
With subsequent releases like Infestissumam and especially Meliora, Ghost acquired massive critical acclaim, commercial success, and a Grammy award under their Saint-Peter’s-Cross-adorned belt. It seemed as if nothing stood in Ghost’s way.
That is, until their veil of anonymity suddenly vanished when the members sued the frontman in 2016 for payment issues. See, until that point, the band had been performing under the guise of Nameless Ghouls, with their lead singer, now revealed to be a man named Tobias Forge, using the persona of a Satanic pope by the name of Papa Emeritus (three versions, to be precise).
Now that new Ghouls have come to take place of the previous ones, fans were left to question how drastically this would affect the band’s dynamic and playing style.
Fast-forward a few months, and Ghost had dropped two teaser tracks, “Rats” and “Dance Macabre,” to build up the release of their next album, Prequelle. A new caricature from Forge had been introduced, Cardinal Copia, thus giving the band a new identity while still maintaining their traditional showmanship.
Suffice to say, these singles had hardcore fans divisive about the band’s newer and much cleaner sound that had been brought to the table. The tracks appeared to be far more hair or glam-metal-esque than what would’ve been preferred. With all this worry surrounding this album, it seemed more likely than not that Ghost wouldn’t appeal to the listeners adequately.
Thankfully, this was not the case.
Instead, Ghost still delivers their fiendish sound, but rather in a different light. Most importantly, however, is that the dynamic that the new Ghouls have adapted still fits well with the ominous atmosphere that Ghost’s music typically presents. To put it simply, the new band members were great replacements.
The teaser track, “Rats,” opens up their latest collection of unholy psalms, but differently than what would’ve been expected. There is an instrumental intro titled Ashes, which features a little girl’s echo (that’s Forge’s daughter, by the way) singing “Ring around the Rosie” before it explodes into a grand, monolithic instrumentation, typical to Ghost fashion.
This accents the drum intro of “Rats” perfectly. It is all the more theatrical, just the way an album opener should be for this band (after all, they have used this same instrumental-intro strategy before). However, upon inspecting the lyrics, the listener would find that the band isn’t praising their dark overlord as usual, rather speaking of unwonted destruction tearing through without explanation- like rats in a plague: “Into your sanctum/ You let them in/ Now all your loved ones/ And all your kin/ Will suffer punishments beneath the wrath of God/ Never to forgive/ Never to forgive.”
This brings up one of the most essential things to note about this album: the recurring themes of the Bubonic Plague, which differs quite a bit from the albums preceding it. Granted, their presence is still as sacrilegious as ever.
The 3rd track, “Faith,” takes a much more grizzly approach to their flavor of devilishness. It feels much like the tracks “Majesty” and “From the Pinnacle to the Pit” from Meliora in its overall execution; it is the closest to a traditional Ghost track as it gets on the album.
However, the lyrical content has now incorporated a new element into Ghost’s music – a setting if you will. The Black Death in 1347-1351 provides a harsh, depraved backdrop, certainly fitting for a band such as Ghost. Every track on this album (minus the two instrumentals, “Miasma” and “Helvetesfönster”) take place in this pestilence-strewn environment.
The presence of a medieval setting was perhaps the smartest decision made for this album, as there are a plethora of ways that their infernal image is incorporated alongside it. The populace of Europe at the time, which mostly followed the Christian clergy, blamed their despair on supernatural forces; forgiveness from God was commonly thought to be a cure. Knowing about this past belief, Ghost takes full advantage of their lyrical content.
Referring back to the track “Faith,” the lyrics could be interpreted as having God looking down upon his pleading, suffering people as they die while Satan is being accused for it: “I am all eyes/ I am all ears/ I am the wall/ And I’m watching you fall/ Because faith is mine!”
Then there’s the track following it, “See the Light,” which is a bit of a role reversal. It appears that this track comes from Satan’s perspective, and yet it is just as impulsive. It is also, lyrically, the most personal track as the allusions to the hardship that the band, Tobias in particular, are too hard too ignore: “Many a rat I have befriended/ And so many a thorn stood between/ But of all the demons I’ve known/ None could compare to you.”
As the track progresses, the instrumentals it becomes increasingly more passionate and grandiose, all while Copia speaks of growing more powerful off the hatred of others.
Whatever the listener interprets as, whether it be politics, religion, the band’s recent controversies, or even as a straightforward story within this setting, the overarching medieval themes fit perfectly with each and every scenario.
However, the instrumental work is what had fans mostly divided at first. Again, the teaser tracks presented a much more whimsical approach as opposed to their previous works (although Ghost was fairly accessible to begin with).
Thankfully the new Nameless Ghouls are given time to shine in the Morning Star’s light as their work has now been fully realized. This is due in-part to the instrumental 5th track, “Miasma.”
With analog synths and beautifully harmonized guitars glossing over the entirety of the track, the Ghouls more than prove their worth collectively. There’s even a saxophone solo near the end, and it miraculously works well. Not to mention, the increasingly grand and glistening production that Ghost provides with each subsequent release help the band sound larger than life.
“Helvetesfönster,” the 9th track, also demonstrates the Ghouls’ instrumental work quite well, but not quite as colorfully or exciting as it was on “Miasma.”
However, there are moments where not all the pieces in the puzzle work in perfect unison. The tracks “Dance Macabre” and “Witch Image” work more nicely in a lyrical sense, but the backing instrumentals don’t compliment the lyrical themes and images as nicely as an older Ghost song would.
Not that the instrumentals are bad, just that they might come across as underwhelming for some listeners, especially those looking for a grittier approach. Though one could just chock it up to purposefully deceiving the listener into thinking that they are innocent arena rock songs. Again, with the Black Death lingering over this album, these tracks help a lot with the flow of this album.
But then there’s track #8, “Pro Memoria,” where the exact opposite occurs. While this track starts off quite promising with a string intro, the lyrics and vocals quickly devolve, especially on the chorus: “Don’t you forget about dying/ Don’t you forget about your friend death/ Don’t you forget that you will die.” The instrumentals that the Ghouls provide work just fine, but the lyrics and vocals come off a bit too campy, even for Ghost’s standards.
But one sore spot on this album is not enough to derail it, as the album still remains consistent with its better tracks.
Sending off the album is the 10th track, “Life Eternal,” which sees from a bit of a different perspective of the Plague than on the previous tracks. It is a ballad that asks the listener if life is really meant to be lived forever; that life, short as it may be, can still be enjoyed and can still receive hope during the most desperate of times- such as the plague: “I know the light grows darker down below/ But in your eyes it’s gone before you know/ This is the moment of just letting go.”
Conceptually, there could not have been a better way to close this album.
All in all, Prequelle is an album that more than adequately follows up their work in the past. It brilliantly placed Medieval setting perfectly contrasts the triumphant instrumentals, insatiably catchy hooks, and magnificent production. In turn, it brings about a menacing, spooky, but also enjoyable atmosphere, perfect for this time of the year.
While, sure, it isn’t as hellish or occult as projects like Opus Eponymous or Meliora, the album is a different beast entirely; it isn’t trying to be like their previous work. Just as Tobias Forge himself expressed, if Ghost kept re-hashing Papa Emeritus over and over again, their image and music would become stale too quickly.
With Cardinal Copia now being handed the reins, Prequelle is the current embodiment of the band’s evolution. The flood gates have now been opened for Ghost to explore even more opportunities and ideas.
Despite the trouble that Ghost underwent preceding its release, this album still proves this band’s tenacity and willpower. Even after the plagues, Europe blossomed afterwards.
Favorite Track(s): “See the Light”, “Miasma”
Least Favorite Track: “Pro Memoria”