It’s a tossup whether the Ghost show at the Civic Theatre more resembled a medieval dark mass or a new age Satanic youth retreat. Perhaps it was both, and the band conjured a rip in spacetime with blood magick. The Swedish metal band, which consists of Papa Emeritus III and five nameless Ghouls, strolled onto the stage in full regalia. Papa III wore his robes, phallic pope hat, and had his face painted in the likeness of a skull. the Ghouls ditched their inquisition robes from previous tours in favor of art deco-inspired Luciferian masks, complete with cherub cheekbones, horns, and pointed metallic goatees. Prior to the commencing of Ghost’s musical ritual, Danzig and Phil Anselmo could be seen ascending to their private balcony in the cathedral- like venue, archbishops of metal attending a conclave. Greeting the unwashed masses, an exuberant Anselmo and a camera-shy Danzig lifted their devil horns into the air while the congregation below hailed their idols.
Fog rolled off the stage as pre-recorded liturgical music followed by “The Masked Ball” by Jocelyn Pook drifted out of the speakers into the crowd. Pook’s composition, featured in Eyes Wide Shut, continued the anachronistic chamber music sound with a liturgy read in reverse. The reference to
the wealthy cabal in Eyes Wide Shut is no coincidence. One of the more interesting things about Ghost, the theatrical act, is their use of Satan and Satanism as transgressive symbols. Papa Emeritus is the very literal incarnation of a rock god. The band’s theology plays on biblical Satanism, which is a little tired and slightly irrelevant in an age when a growing number of folks couldn’t care less about religious institutions.
There’s the classic idea of Lucifer representing knowledge, individuality, and freedom; and that of a symbol of power and hypocrisy. Besides the serious, semi-conceptual theology, there are the horror movie parodies and bits of faux sanctimony. Even in interviews, the shrouded members of Ghost will offer tidbits of their personal conceptualizations of Satanism, but shrug and say the overall concept is really just a cool idea for a band. Despite all of this, an Orthodox liturgy played in reverse might have been the best expression of this campy Satanic rebellion. It’s a hilarious nod to Tipper Gore’s assault on musicians and the Satanic Panic of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Those crusaders thought playing metal records backwards summoned the devil, but Ghost very literally summoned Satan (well, at least his representative) with inverted monk music.
Meanwhile, those trappings fell to the wayside when the band launched into “Spirit” from their new album Meliora. Gone was the solemnity and ritual. What took its place sounded like a full-fledged praise band. On “Spirit, Absent,” Papa led the crowd in singing. This sort of testimony popped up once again during “He Is” when he sang, “He is insurrection, he is spite, he’s the force that made me be. He’s the shining in the light without whom I cannot see. He is the disobedience that holds us together.”
The band played several songs from their heavier first album, Opus Eponymous, and the genre-bending follow up Infestissimaum, much to the delight of the audience. The metal nobility in the private balcony were pleased: Danzig nodded his head while Anselmo stood the whole time, mimicking Papa’s hand movements and singing along to the choruses with his trademark lurch. “Ritual” was another big hit with the audience, who gladly sang along, “The chapel of ritual smells of dead human sacrifice.”
One metalhead tried to hold true to his perception of the metal show’s cardinal performativity by stage-diving and jostling audience members. He ran off stage right and leapt into the crowd. This did not appease the dark one, however. In a startling display of tenderness—not normally associated with metal or Satanism—Papa Emeritus turned and told the audience, “Cut that crap out. We want everyone to have a good time. We do not want anyone to get hurt. Stop that shit. There are little ones in the audience, like her.” He then walked over to the side of the stage, crouched down, and shook the hand of a little girl who sat on her father’s shoulders. “Hi little girl, how are you?” he asked. He’s the leader of an unhallowed institution, but we shouldn’t be surprised Papa embraced a child. Politicians and popes do it all of the time. Only Papa meant it.
After performing half of the show in his vestments, Papa changed out of his funny hat and robes and into a goth-pirate jacket for Meliora’s single “Cirice.” He kept his skull face paint, but a shaggy black bowl cut framed his eyes. It turns out that even in the unholy church, the young priest wants you to think he’s down to earth and a cool guy. For one song, “Jigolo Har Megiddo,” the Nameless Ghouls even brought out acoustic guitars. And it still rocked!
In a review of Meliora for Antigravity, I said it sounded like the product of a Faustian bargain between pop music and doom metal. The soaring choruses and harmonies resembled the Beach Boys more than Iron Maiden, while the music borrows from both groups. The live show is less slick, but the sound is big, full, and the riffs thunder. During “The Pinnacle to the Pit,” the Civic pulsed with the thundering bass line. The Nameless Ghouls could play up their roles as inquisitors if they wanted, really hammer home the church thing like the Papa Emeritus character must. Instead, the anonymous costumed getups seemed to grant more freedom for the Ghouls to enjoy themselves. The Ghouls jumped around like Ted “Theodore” Logan and Bill S. Preston Esq., or so many of their idols. They encircled and supported soloists, struck familiar poses during the most crunching riffs, and just generally had a good time. Even the stoic keyboard player enjoyed his moment during a keytar solo.
Ghost played the Civic in 2014 to a slightly smaller audience; one with the devil horns and raised fists, but also with laughter. It seemed people were just as curious about this strange Swedish group, but willing to buy in and let six guys in Satan costumes rock out and give us their inverted take on positivity. In projecting objects of
literal worship, the band members get to actually enjoy playing music and play up their half-serious/half- goofy concept, but might not have to deal with living up to fans’ personal expectations of what makes a rock star, or metal god, while catering to that very perception. Growing success brings a new level of scrutiny, truth be told. Still, we can’t even play-worship a fake religion without somebody poking holes in the made up theology and spoiling the fun. With no small degree of irony, that level of cynicism does not appear to interest Ghost. They’re evangelical, trying to take their decidedly metal image and spread it past the dark walls and horned gates of metal’s domain.