Monday, May 12, 2014

Ghost Live

The culmination of my 8-month obsession with the Swedish pop-metal band, Ghost

I purchased tickets to this Chicago date months ago for myself and another friend who took the plunge into the band at the same time. We both entered this fascination with a certain awareness of how utterly ridiculous this band appears on the surface. With a frontman who dresses like a bizarro-world Pope and a line-up consisting of five "nameless ghouls" who wear generic Darth Vader costumes, it's clear from this visual eye candy that the band is attempting to initiate interest in the band before a note is even played.

Usually, such attempts are received by younger music fans quickly, which is why-as someone in their mid-40's and another man in their early 30's-may have approached Ghost as a guilty pleasure at first. We were keenly aware from the start that this was a band that probably wasn't designed for our age group. 

Yet my ticket purchase was immediate. The prospect of seeing Ghost in a theatre, bellowing their Satanic message on Easter eve became almost an impulse decision when tickets for the show were first announced. To be honest, I wasn't aware that the date coincided with the Holy weekend, but it later became a perfect alibi for me to excuse myself from any Easter family activities taking place at my in-laws when the date drew near.

Of course, the Easter date sounds more sinister than it actually was. As I've mentioned before, Ghost's image is intentionally provocative and their Satanic message is nothing more than a bunch of grown men cobbling together Anglican phrases that appear evil on the surface. A closer examination only reveals how English is the band's second language and how lifting bits of the Book of Common Prayer can provide a career full of source material and controversy, provided that there are still a few folks who manage to stroll in for Sunday service.

Is all of this lost on Ghost's fans? Hard to say, as the line to the sold-out show circled around the block of the Vic Theatre featured a wide array of audience members. There were the obvious heavy metal fans in jeans and black concert tees alongside Goths who lined up behind middle-aged men who seemed to be channeling bits of (I'm guessing) their previous devotion to KISS towards their new Swedish masters.

Besides, everyone knows that KISS stands for "Kings In Satan's Service" anyway.

We took up behind a couple at the end of the line who were quietly waiting for the doors to open. The man, a balding gentleman wearing a ratty trench coat and looking like Riff Raff from the Rocky Horror Picture Show. His companion sported long, green hair and leggings tucked into a pair of Doc Marten boots. She had taken the time to paint the logo and an image of the band's debut album on her footwear. He smoked cigarettes and didn't say a word to her the entire time we waited for the doors to open.

The line moved quickly as the doors opened and we made our way to the balconies as soon as we entered. One of the perks of being older is knowing that the general admission floor would quickly fill with younger folks who are capable of standing for extended periods of time and who don't mind jockeying for position the entire duration of the sets of both the opening band and headliners.

Speaking of, King Dude-a trio of Seattle folk-rock naysayers with similar religious criticisms-opened for Ghost, in an attempt for thematic consistency, but delivering nothing short of a complete train-wreck of styles. I looked over at my friend and noticed that he was in the middle of a short nap, which  is pretty close to my own opinion of King Dude's performance.

To pass the time during their set, we struck up a conversation with an attractive and inked woman who had noticed my friend's nap time and also felt it was amusingly appropriate. She was at the show with her partner, who happened to be one of the head honchos at Kuma's Corner-a Chicago eatery known for their upscale burgers named after heavy metal bands.

A few months ago, the restaurant introduced the "Ghost Burger" in honor of the band: a white cheddar cheeseburger with ghost pepper aioli, moistened with some red wine  reduction (the "blood" of Christ, if you're seeing where this is going) and topped with a communion wafer. I remember reading about this last fall and immediately thinking "That sounds remarkably tasty!" without even considering how others would react to having a stale, tasteless cracker sitting on top of this carnivorous gem.

But apparently, a lot of Catholics didn't appreciate having "the body of Christ"crown a patty of beef named after such a notorious band who regularly sings a song with a chorus that reads, "Hear our Satan prayer/The anti-Nicene Creed." Protests were swift and decisive, and after a week or so of trying to patch things up, Kuma's Corner pulled the burger from the menu and the matter was forgotten.

Our concert neighbors told us that the band had actually visited the location earlier that day, taking pictures with children and their parents who presumably know about the band's history, and that Ghost's frontman usually ditches his normal hat, robe and skull make-up when roaming around with the band off stage. For these moments, he dons what appears to be an old man mask, nicely touched up with make-up and wearing a tailored suit. He speaks with a phony baloney Italian accent, perhaps in an attempt to convey an aura of legitimacy to the role he is playing.

The band wasn't talking today, hitting a local record store for photo opportunities but no discussion. The restaurateurs told us that they brought back the "Ghost Burger" especially for the event, and that several fans-including a few families-dropped by on their way to the show. Sure enough, we noticed a few parents who had brought their kids to the show, a questionable decision if you asked me.

It's not necessarily the fact that Ghost are purported Satanists, it's more of an issue that the children I noticed were young enough to have no real understanding of the complex history of religion, let alone a discussion of the nuances of good and evil.

While most of us in attendance were in on the joke and aware of the humor that goes into building the characters that serve as the members of Ghost, there were a few who took this shit way too seriously, chief among them King Dude.

After his set, a few audience members blurted out a few "Hail Satan(s)!" or "Satan rules!" while the road crew dutifully put together the stage set. For the most part, our section was made up of a large portion of the older crowd and, as expected, the floor area was filled with the younger contingency, including one dedicated young lady who came dressed as a nun in white face.

There were the obligatory church windows in back of the stage, but other than this minimal religious imagery, the rest of the band's visual arsenal relied on smoke and lighting. There were no amplifiers present and stage risers held the keyboardists on stage right ("Nameless Ghoul"- Keyboards) and a very basic drum kit on stage left ("Nameless Ghoul" - drums) which featured on bass drum and floor toms only.

The load-in music consisted of various religious chanting, which may or may not have prompted those aforementioned outbursts. Prior to the dramatic shift in music, classic rock and metal favorites had been playing over the p.a., including a spin of Journey's "Don't Stop Believing," which had a large portion of the crowd singing very un-ironically with it.

The lights went out and five nameless ghouls made their way on stage to the pre-recorded choir of the opening moments of their second album, Infestissumam.

There are moments of this record in which I adore, but there are many more that I'm still not fond of. Thankfully, a big chunk of Ghost's recent set list continues to pull from their debut, the far-superior Opus Eponymous as well as the title track of the band's last e.p. and an eerie cover of The Beatles' "Here Comes The Sun" which features a baby crying during the recorded introduction.

While there were many moments of taped portions (the acoustic ending of "Genesis" were lifted directly from the album version) it wasn't as intrusive as the fact that not being able to see the faces of the nameless ghouls seriously inhibits the ability to really get into the band's heavier moments. With no facial expressions, the guitar shredding becomes uneventful; the showmanship lost.

Which means it's up to Papa Emeritus (II) to carry the weight of the crowds attention. And that's easier said than done, particularly when your frontman is restricted by a Pope's hat and a religious robe. He would slowly pace the stage, using his hands to either dramatically gesture to the crowd or "conduct" the nameless ghost guitarists who were soloing.

The crowd would get quiet whenever Papa spoke in between songs, which was only a few times and nearly impossible to understand ("What'd he say?" was a common question from my friend next to me). During some of the musical interludes, Papa would exit the stage, leaving the rest of the band to execute a very precise and unwavering performance. The mix was balanced and the sound was surprisingly comfortable without hearing protection in the front of the Vic's balcony.

There is very little deviation between the set on one night verses another, suggesting that the show may be extremely choreographed and well paced. But the reality is that Ghost display a very minimal stag show at this point in their career-which may or may not be akin to the package that KISS used to roll into town with such proficiency early in their career, just before the floodgates open.

Whether or not such success is building behind Ghost is anyone's guess at this point, as the verdict is out on how successful an outfit with a Satanic pop metal band  from Sweden will be in puritanical America-particularly one with a surprisingly blues-free foundation. We tend to like our anti-religious venom to be housed in long hair aggression with ample amounts of testosterone and guitar mutilation.

There's none of that going on here-and to top it off, Papa Emeritus' voice (when he isn't talking in character) is filled with more fey notes than any real deep balls worship or tortured soul wailing. It's a pop construct at this point, where Ghost's most heaviest of moments have a very prevalent undercurrent of camp and twisted enjoyment of yanking on people's rosaries.

Leading all of this was Emeritus, who was either way too into his character to adequately deliver his lines or was genuinely flabbergasted at the devotion demonstrated by a bunch of very admiring fans who showered their affection whenever the band silenced in between songs.

Admittedly, he is quite a sight. You literally can't take your eyes off of him during the show-even if some of that reason is because the rest of the line up is purposely lacking any human acknowledgement. Regardless if Emeritus was doing very little in terms of adding to the material from its original performances or from a crowd interaction perspective, he was at least giving off the appearance of some kind of evil deity throughout the evening. Arms would extend up to the stage the moment he leaned forward, eyes would seek out his with intense admiration when he gazed into the people and gifts of roses were presented  to him at the end of the set when the air of finality began to creep into the set.
"Hail Satan! Welcome Year Zero!"

I suppose in a way, these were the ones who really needed presiding over-the disenfranchised who would knowingly take up with a clever pop metal band with dark overtones and an amplified image that's to die for. The pun in that statement is intended  for the rest of us-the ones who "get" the  fact that all of this is a carefully constructed agent provocateur. The audience members that didn't understand that were already in need of some spirituality to begin with, and given the alternate options of Satanic metal offerings, we should probably be thankful for the fact that they've aligned themselves with such philosophical lightweights like Ghost.

One thing the band does remarkably well is to translate this image into a marketing juggernaut. The merchandise table features a wide plethora of t-shirts (most of them working off of a movie poster, like Scarface or Jaws) and moving up to such high-end items like vibrators with Papa Emeritus' likeness on the end ($100). As awesome as the merchandise was, the novelty of them is probably best left to the younger bums as even my thirtysomething friend made the comment later on after purchasing  a t-shirt, "When am I ever going to be able to wear this?"

In this regard, Ghost are operating on the same level as any other religious institution: using the pulpit to motivate parishioners to pull out their wallets and feed the offering plate. The difference is that Ghost is a helluva more captivating than most religious services and I'd much rather be in the clergy of "Ghuleh/Zombie Queen" (the stunning first number of the encore) than the lame rendition of "My Redeemer Lives" that seems to find its way into contemporary Christian services across America.

And based on the articles I've read about the band's namesake hamburger, a lot more tasty than the communion wafer they service at my own church.


Per Aspera ad Inferi
Prime Mover
Jigolo Har Megiddo
Con Clavi Con Dio
Body and Blood
Death Knell
Here Comes the Sun (Beatles cover)
Depth of Satan's Eyes
Stand by Him
Year Zero
If You Have Ghosts (Roky Erickson cover)


Ghuleh/Zombie Queen
Monstrance Clock

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Peter Criss - Let Me Rock You

There was a bit on controversy when the original line-up of KISS could not play nice and dish out a few songs together during the band's induction ceremony into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And while the decision not to perform was petty and a slap to the face of many KISS fans, Paul Stanley or Gene Simmons could have easily pointed out  Peter Criss' solo albums as the reason why they would never want to perform with the Cat Man ever again.

If you're keeping track, we're only up to the third Criss solo record (the second since his departure from KISS) and already there is a huge pattern emerging. Criss had ample time-and one would assume, ample resources-to piece together a coherent ensemble of musicians and songs in his slow pace of solo releases.

Coming off two years since his abysmal Out Of Control release, Let Me Rock You finally shows Peter without any hint of his KISS past on the cover, but within the grooves it finds him to be continually haunted by his past while having no plan as to how he can escape it and no clue of how what kind of artist he'd like us to view him ass.

Instead, Criss teams up once again with producer Vini Poncia, an enabler of rock drummers (see Ringo Starr) and the man who is also complicit in reducing KISS into disco-chasing poseurs who completely disregard the impact it would have on the band's overall credibility. With his help, he demonstrated how far the band was willing to go in terms of sacrificing their wobbly credibility for the sake of a chart topper.

Poncia was Criss' suggestion, so it's not as if there isn't plenty of blame to go around here. But what's interesting is how Criss continues to use Vini even after he's logged some pretty disastrous results previously. Even stranger, Poncia was hired back by KISS for  some additional shit-flinging in the studio later on during the 80's, hinting that the band's camp is pretty limited on networking and even suggests how willing they are to tolerate mediocrity over someone who would come in an challenge the band and compete with their egos.

The thing is, there should be no ego left in Criss at this point. By 1982, he was largely forgotten, except for the ever-present KISS fans, and he rewards this diminishing base with songs that alternate between  half-assed hard rock songs devoid of any bite right next to Criss' and Poncia's history of Brill Building devotion. It's a mess of competing styles and lazy execution, seemingly suggesting that it is our responsibility to find the  hooks within this clusterfuck and credit Criss for being more talented than he actually is.

The Cat Man only contributes to the creation of 2 of Let Me Rock You's 10 selections, and he utilizes a pair of session drummers for the proceedings too, all of which begs the question: "So what did Peter Criss actually do for this solo record?"

Evidently, not much. With no drumming, no character in his vocal abilities and no actual songs that have any sort of personal relevance, Let Me Rock You is, at best, contractual obligation, serving no purpose other than to continue his former band's penchant for socking it to the wallets of their fans and further damaging Criss' reputation by forcing these schmucks to eat  his shit.

The irony of allowing the Gene Simmons song "Feels Like Heaven" into his third record is a great example of how little Criss really cares about his own quality control. He even lets Russ Ballard (again, another KISS enabler) add a few tracks to the cause and even a young kid named Steve Stevens (of Billy Idol fame) gets a shot and showing off his own shiny turds with one of the worst tracks on the release, "First Day In The Rain."

But the absolute worst is Criss cover of John Lennon's "Jealous Guy," which is riddled with an abundance of echo that try to cover up Peter's lack of vocal abilities and which are delivered at such an awkward pace that you'd be forgiven if you questioned the man's ability to keep tempo.

Let Me Rock You is Criss' third dud in a row, so pathetic that it makes Gene and Paul seem brilliant in their hiring of the tiny lapdog known as Eric Carr. It also provides some legitimacy in the notion that KISS fans will buy nearly anything related to the band and how Gene and Paul may have had the right idea in keeping Criss away from the reunion proceedings over thirty years after this hairball was first released.