That Ghost so often gets characterized as a “polarizing” band is, I guess, little more than a testament to the fact that some people are petty, like to start arguments, and/or have not yet achieved the level of maturity necessary to understand the nature of “opinion”, as a concept. Because with a band like Ghost it doesn’t ever seem to be a matter of opinion; Ghost detractors don’t simply hear a Ghost song and say, “Eh, not really my style”. In fact, they might take a stance before actually hearing anything, and instead decry the band for the mere fact that they exist, for the fact that someone out there might be so bold as to put forth a version of heavy music that might not conform with their own bonkers definition of “REAL METAL”.
But of course, it’s not just that Ghost makes a rather unique kind of metal that causes their enemies’ skin to crawl, but the singular fact that they do it very, very well. I defy anyone to listen to their first album and not say with some level of grace and objectivity that if ever there was a justification for melody, songcraft, and other heretically “pop” elements within the framework of metal music, then that justification is Ghost. And while that was a very song-oriented album, it was still clear from day one that Ghost excelled at a good number of things beyond just songwriting. That’s why everyone in the world seemed to have something to say about them, and why they’ve only grown over the course of the past 5 years, to be without a doubt one of the most important, most closely-watched, and still, sadly, one of the most polarizing acts in contemporary heavy music.
Me? I fucking love Ghost! I was obsessed with that first album, Opus Eponymous, for a while. I couldn’t get it out of my head. To this day, at least twice a week a shrill, demonic chorus pops into the back of my head to sing “BATHORY!” in unison, and then I spend the rest of the day humming “Elizabeth” to myself. As obvious as many of Ghost’s influences are, this was still such a strange, refreshing, and ultimately engrossing album. I couldn’t figure out what was more impressive, that Ghost had written 7 songs (not including the album’s opening and closing instrumentals) that I was absolutely powerless to get out of my head, or that some mastermind or masterminds had succeeded in assembling an outfit that was so utterly strange, but at the same time so artistically cohesive. Opus Eponymous married a completely pervasive lyrical and thematic devotion to Satan to a sound that was beyond innocuous when held up to today’s standards of extreme music; they took metal’s obsession with the occult to its extreme while simultaneously and continually striving not for brutality in their sound, but for grace, subtlety, and everything else that clearly belongs nowhere near heavy metal music. And it worked, by Jove! It worked so damn well.
Unsurprisingly, their follow-up, 2013’s Infestissumam, was met with more mixed criticism, as it made some slight breaks from an accepted formula, favoring a greater sense of grandeur and eccentricity, but resembling traditional metal even less that its precursor. I will admit that I too was unsure at first, but boy did this album grow on me; at the time of its release, I never would have believed that two years later, I’d actually listen to it more frequently than Opus Eponymous. Nonetheless I’ll certainly admit that it does not have the immediate appeal or impact of the debut, and while a closer look will certainly reveal a cornucopia of musical deftness, what’s perhaps gone is the capacity for as simple a message as “hail Satan!” to be prevalent or potent enough to sustain an entire album. But then again did anyone really want – or need – another full album of this:
Regardless, even while I do continue to consider it a great album, Infestissumam may indeed have found the band at a slight loss for artistic and thematic coherence, and just a bit unsure about how to move forward.
Well, their new album, Meliora, directly addresses this issue, and finds the band far more confident and deliberate than they appeared to be on their last outing. Aside from 2 short instrumentals and one song I could do without (I’ll get to that later), this album comprises nothing but heavy hitters. While it may lack the spark of Opus Eponymous or the curiosity of Infestissumam, it makes up for it with pure execution, and the result is a pretty convincing case for the band’s strongest statement yet.
Opener “Spirit” sets things off with a silly, spooky synth intro that shouldn’t be taken too quickly to heart as representative of what’s to come; after an odd transition we get guitars instead, then drums, and then one of those whole 4/4 to 12/8 shifts a la “Money”, and then we’re finally inside an actual song. To be completely honest this opening is one of very few weak moments on this album, so sad to say it’s what starts the whole thing, but once things are rolling, this song reveals itself as the most well-crafted beginning to a Ghost album yet. And as early as this first track we see a heightened attention paid to the 70s influences, most notably from the classic and prog rock camps. This song shows such a deft matching of force and restraint, which basically means it’s, like, the ultimate Ghost song. It’s this balance – and more importantly their flawless attainment of it – which creates that Ghost sound, that weird, heavy-but-rarely-thrashing, gentle-but-inescapably-evil, always-earnest-and-always-ironic GHOST SOUND.
That Meliora shows Ghost mixing all of these weird ingredients in the same pot, and then adding a slightly heavier than usual dose of classic/prog 70s rock is even more evident in penultimate powerhouse “Absolution”. It’s first half is predictable enough, with a creepy verse, and an even creepier pre-chorus, heading into a sermonic chorus full of pianos and backup vocals. But after twice around this maypole, we get launched into this HUGE musical interlude that has Keith Emerson written all over it, and then has the Allman Brothers written all over it (weird, I know), and that really stretches out before heading back into a final chorus. Instances like these, strewn throughout the album, show Ghost being a rock band in a way that we haven’t necessarily seen them be previously. It certainly feels like, in writing and recording this album, they focused far less on the theatrics and the aesthetics, putting their effort instead into, well, goold old rock band stuff. Stuff like guitar work, smart riffage, and complex interplay between the musicians. Opus was covered with such a hugely impressive veil of specious spookiness that it didn’t need this kind of stuff, but with this new record Ghost ups the musical ante as much as they needed to in order to stay interesting, and then some more.
Am I the only one who’s noticing how good Ghost is at ballads? Keep in mind this is coming from someone who typically hates ballads (except for the Scorpions’), but really, man. It’s doubtful that anyone agrees with me but “Ghuleh/Zombie Queen” was actually my favorite track off of Infestissumam. On Meliora the torch is taken up by “He Is”, and I don’t have much to say about it other than it’s great. Ironic AND earnest. And beautiful! I don’t even get it, man. But really – and this is the only metal band I’d ever say this about – if they followed up with a totally soft album in a few years, I’m pretty sure I’d love it. More than those last two Opeth albums, that’s for sure! And those are actually pretty good.
If there’s one thing that should not be up for debate, it’s that Ghost is in another league when it comes to songcraft. And I don’t simply mean that they write good melodies – that was apparent enough if their earlier work. Meliora isn’t simply full of good melodies; it’s full of twists and turns through a journey of sound, each of which is exactly where it should be to pull you onwards through some crazy gamut of sonic emotion. All bands are able to write verses and choruses, but then they realize that’s all they have, and they say, “uhhh, well I guess we have to write a, umm what’s it called, oh yeah a bridge. We gotta write a bridge!” And they stick some pointless thing there just to fill up the space. Same thing with pre-choruses. Well, Ghost are masters of the bridge, and of the pre-chorus. There is so much going on throughout this album that is not verse/chorus, and every exception from the verse/chorus template serves such purpose! When I said earlier that the remaining 7 songs on this album were all “heavy hitters”, this is exactly what I meant, that they are all able to stretch towards the 5 or 6 minute mark without ever losing steam because they are composed of multiple different parts, and move in interesting directions, to an extent which is rarely demanded of either metal or pop music.
If there’s one thing I miss, it’s the fun. Those first two albums were fun; this one is simply monumental. Not such a bad trade-off, I guess.
Oh and that one song I don’t really like is “Mummy Dust”. But all the other ones are really really really good, trust me. Get your hands on this album pronto, and in the meantime listen to “Majesty”, which is one of the 7 best songs on this album: