I discovered Ghost with the second album, Infestissumam, a regrettable decision that was made in haste and nearly derailed any additional interest in the band. Take it from me, don't make the same mistake: begin your exploration of this Swedish sextet with their debut, Opus Eponymous.
If it weren't for the band's wonderful religious imagery and their incessant praising of Satan, chances are good that I would have probably ignored Ghost completely from that moment on.
Call it the devil's work or blame it on some subconscious backwards masking, but there was something compelling to me about a band working with an image that is most associated with aggression, volume and lots of testosterone while using an abundance of pop and melody in their quest to acquire your soul for the underworld.
The dichotomy was addictive, and the more I immersed myself in discovering Ghost, the more I began to appreciate their unique mission statement.
You have to understand that I grew up during a time where any association with the devil was viewed negatively. Sure, it may have been a little titillating to have a hint of Satanic imagery to gain interest in your music, but if you had any desire of financial success or commercial intent, you had to suppress the pentagrams and play nice. And part of "playing nice" meant making sure your product was acceptable to the record buyers of Sam Walton's joint and the God-fearing local business owners who made Motley Crue turn in their barely visible pentagram for the cover of Shout At The Devil into a boring quartet of photos of the band in garish make up.
Things were so bad that even televangelist Jim Bakker's network in the early 80's gave an hour a week to a show devoted entirely to "outing" bands with Satanic references and other suggestive evil matters. When the devil material got light, they would often spend an inordinate amount of time looking for backward masking on records and other issues of concern like sex, drugs, and doing drugs that may lead to sex. If it wasn't for this show, I would have never known the message "It's fun to smoke marijuana" could be heard if you played Queen's "Another One Bites The Dust" backwards.
My point is this: had the band Ghost tried any of this Satanic jive back in the day, they would have been crucified (ha!) by religious leaders and other do-gooders who didn't see the band's over-the-top theatrics as anything but a complete threat to our nation's youth.
I mean, you've seen Paradise Lost, right?
By 2010, the world was ready for a confirmed group of devil worshippers, at least not the kind that burn historic churches and eat the brain splatter of a fellow band member's successful shotgun suicide. No, Ghost are the palatable devil worshippers, the kind where their look oozes irony and their lyrics read like make believe Latin and lazy memories of the Anglican Book of Common Prayers. Fronted by Papa Emeritus, a Pope-like religious figure in skull make-up and supported by 5 masked and anonymous musicians known as "nameless ghouls," Ghost slightly suggest some elements of evil on a visual scale, but the shear audacity of their bold religious image is hard to accept as anything more than an ironic statement of our world's curious history with Christianity and evil.
This is all confirmed within moments of Opus Eponymous, the band's debut album. They're from Sweden, which also contributes to their lack of possessing any real threat against humanity, particularly since some of the band's initial seed money came from art grants divvied out by the Swedish government .
But the real nicety is found not within the band's peripheral image or religious doctrine, it's in the music itself. While undeniably a hard rock record, Opus Eponymous noticeably light on the aggressiveness. The keyboards are mixed as high as the guitars, leaving Papa Emeritus with plenty of room to sing without the aid of any cliched metal effects whatsoever.
Opus Eponymous reveals hints of Blue Oyster Cult's more accessible moments as well as hints of late 80's prog metal favorites Voivod, if they'd pointed their songs towards the bowels of hell instead of outer space.
"Lucifer, we are here/For your praise, evil one" sings Emeritus, showing neither much conviction in the topic itself, or much concern for intimidating the listener. His ambivalence towards metal's notorious history of nutswinging machismo is unsettling at first, but positively refreshing after repeated listens. And thanks to the record's good melodic sense and abundant parade of hooks, it is quite possible that Opus will amass more listens than you probably should admit to.
The guitars are impeccably appropriate, closely following warm, retro tones and vintage appointments. Besides tactful organs which are used abundantly throughout Opus, Ghost have enough smarts to let the bassist-again, listed as another "Nameless Ghoul"- tackle the low end without letting it be ruined by endless drop-D tuning strategies. Everything is wonderfully recorded in what sounds like a very analog environment. The performances are clever and tactfully restrained, representing a very respectful tribute to the era of music that it is obviously indebted to.
The impeccable musicianship makes it so much easier to sing and quietly giggle along with Emeritus' constant praises of Satan ("The Devil's power is the greatest one"), usually bordering on Cliffs Notes edition of religious phrases ("Hear our Satan prayer/The anti-Nicene Creed") with the occasional songs about Elizabeth Bathory, a royal Hungarian 17th century serial killer ("Her acts of cruelty/Her lust for blood/Makes her one of us").
Opus Eponymous is perfectly suited for vinyl, with its tidy running time and its cheesy Gothic cover art. As with any bit of seventies worship, Opus comes complete with the album's lyrics found inside its gatefold sleeve, written in some impossible read font that's as fun as shit to follow along to while you're giving it a spin. You'll be able to confirm the lyrics online if needed, and certain sites even provide song meanings as supplied by fans and devoted listeners of the record. The site that I visited listed "It's about Satan" as the explanation of every song on Opus Eponymous, and that explanation is entirely correct.
Not that it matters. You'll be able to recite every single ridiculous chorus, particularly since they're so infectious and enormously fun to sing along with. It was suggested that I failed to notice that important element -"fun" - in my review of Ghost's second album, and I suppose that criticism is somewhat fair. But it works better here on the band's debut, because the record's focus is so tightly centered on one topic (Satan) and the band's blueprint is based entirely on spreading the message of evil in the guise of a very entertaining thirty-five minute long package.
The pop elements, the strong performances, and the band's theatrics all combine perfectly to create a refreshing and unique approach that works surprisingly well in today's ADHD culture. For me, I think that the appeal was discovering a band that focused on something beyond the walls of reality, right out of the gate to the point where I relished the idea that Ghost isn't content with modest intentions. Ghost seems to be arena-ready from the start, a goal that is practically unheard of since hair metal got buried with Nevermind's ascension over two decades ago.
Maybe it's taken that long to be ready for such blatant attempt at lofty desires. Or maybe it's taken such the dramatic appearance of a make-believe Pope and his Darth Vader masked minions to make this kind of yearning to be acceptable again.
One thing is for sure: if you sit down and put on the second side of Opus, you'll find that it's damn near perfect- that is, if that corn cob of pretentiousness that's lodged in your ass isn't too out of reach. It's a great blend of hard rock's mid-70's worship with a very legitimate attempt to recreate some similar magic for today's rock and roll virgins. Because - I don't know if you've noticed - hard rock isn't what it used to be, and its lack of eye-catching excitement probably has something to do with it no longer being the bond of our youth. And while I'm certainly not suggesting the death of hard rock/heavy metal's is here or even imminent, I do notice a decline in its influence among our youth.
To correct this, I see nothing wrong with eliciting the help of Satan himself to make sure the impressionable ears of our youth at least give hard rock a chance. Perhaps that's achieved with a band working something that's bigger in scope that what their garage or basement can provide or what their laptop can help create.
Perhaps that's achieved through the efforts of a Pope, his evil minions, and a few songs about the devil.
And that's fine by me too, because everyone knows that Hell's got all the good bands anyway.