Photos by David Howard King
Satan, they say, is the lord of deception. His devotees in Sweden’s Ghost are particularly talented purveyors of his trade. On a Tuesday night, they packed The Palace Theatre with hordes of burly metalheads wearing their t-shirts, or slightly less prominently, Slipknot’s. Ghost, made up of Papa Emeritus, a decidedly feminine, flirtatious and preening anti-pope, and his five “nameless ghouls”–masked musicians behaving as stone demons activated only by the satanic power of their music–enraptured the decidedly masculine crowd by deploying a highly choreographed, sexually charged and decidedly pop-minded performance.
While Ghost may drape themselves in the themes and garb associated with death, black, and heavy metal, their music has much more in common with classic rock–from the polished sheen of Deep Purple, the swagger and psychedelia of The Doors through the soaring anthems of U2, to the drama and defiance of the goths and punks of The Bauhaus and The Misfits.
Ghost are best when functioning as Bon Jovi for Satan–delivering stomping pop-rock that breaks into soaring choruses, infused with themes of love and devotion and hitting sentimental notes. All of this is delivered with absolutely no challenging or intimidating musical elements. No feedback, no screaming, no crunchy guitars. Heck, Emeritus barely ever mines the stereotypical metal “Yeah!”
Yes, Ghost wear masks and “worship Satan,” but their music stands closer to the work of modern goth-rock acts like HIM, Type O Negative and, to a lesser extent, My Chemical Romance. It is in their performance and branding that Ghost truly mine metal; their live show is comparable to that of previous generations’ shock-rock acts Rammstein, Marilyn Manson and Alice Cooper.
Papa Emeritus sounded at times more like a choir boy, all innocence and hope, and at others like Placebo lead singer Brian Molko, nasal and emoting.
Emeritus is less metal front man and more pop diva. This is no insult. His command of the stage and audience is formidable; it’s easy to see how the act translates in an arena. His melodies are insidious and unrelenting. The fact that Ghost has at least two tracks in regular rotation on the local modern rock radio station that runs a promo declaring that it rocks and other stations “suck ##%” further speaks to their ability to deceive and convert.
Ghost ripped right into those two “hits” in immediate succession. First “Square Hammer,” a stomper sounding like a mashup of Billy Idol and Blondie brought the crowd to their feet. (They remained there for the rest of the evening.) Emeritus appeared on stage dressed in his anti-pope garb, stalking around his ghouls, delicately motioning towards the audience like an effete royal.
From there they tore into “From the Pinnacle to the Pit” with its rumbling a bass line–eerily similar to Alice in Chains. For this one, Emeritus’ abandoned his choir-boy voice to growl about “the pit.”
A few songs in, the band abandoned the stage. A minute or so later Emeritus re-emerged dressed as a zombie prom king.
On “He is” Emeritus, acting as a crooning balladeer, nearly brought tears to my eyes as he emotionally pledged his love and loyalty to–yeah…you guessed it: Satan.
Songs like “Cirice” and “Year Zero” allowed Emeritus to marshal his “Nameless Ghouls” most effectively, serving as dressing for his grand chorus, striding towards them gesturing politely for applause, caressing their instruments as each delivered a wailing solo, then reclaiming the spotlight in a deft, elegant movement, sending his minions scurrying to the back of the stage. Samples, keyboards and recorded chanting added to the feeling that we were all part of some mysterious ritual even while listening to what in modern musical terms is throwback rock delivered at a polite pace.
The choreography was delicious, reminiscent of European cabaret, the deception perfect, all-consuming. Emeritus has admitted in interviews that his lyrical focus on Satan is a trope and that it does in fact hide more personal, emotional inspirations. On “Cirice” the band’s raw guitar chug came to an abrupt halt and Emeritus passionately sang, “I know your soul is not tainted/Even though you’ve been told so/ Can you hear the rumble?/Can you hear the rumble that’s calling?/I can feel the thunder that’s breaking in your heart/I can see through the scars inside you/I can feel the thunder that’s breaking in your heart/I can see through the scars inside you.”
“He Is” was delivered as gothic folk–almost an anti-Christian rock track with Emeritus singing longingly:
“He is/He’s the shining and the light without whom I cannot see
And he is/Insurrection, he is spite, he’s the force that made me be
He is/He’s the shining and the light without whom I cannot see”
Take Satan out of the equation and Emeritus could be singing about a father, a mentor or even a lover–and it doing it quite convincingly.
Without Satan and the evil what you’re left with is a talented although not particularly unique rock band. Subtract Satan and Emeritus is singing to a nameless lover–and that isn’t particularly deviant, or metal.
With Satan you get danger, pomp, and the feeling the band delivers so well on “Year Zero” that you’re celebrating the glory, the freedom and the empowerment of inviting the end of everything.
Philadelphia’s Zombi–a two-piece featuring a keyboardist and drummer–delivered their instrumental compositions, which pay homage to the soundtracks of ’70s zombie flicks and b-movie sci-fi films. Their performance was mesmerizing.
The bill served as a testament to The Palace’s commitment to booking compelling, edgy and vibrant rock acts to the region.