Black and death metal are a bane for a religious country like Malaysia. About 20 years ago, while I was still in secondary (high) school, I remember our local newspapers being plastered with news of teenage black metal fans killing goats, drinking its blood and also defecating on the Bible and Quran. Black metal gigs in Malaysia were often raided, while music that references the devil is blamed for influencing its listeners to worship Satan, kill and incite hatred. Pretty riveting stuff, right? The lethal tendencies of black metal bands in Norway didn’t help.
Having listened to black and death metal since the tender age of 16, I’m proud to report that I’ve not been inclined to participate in any of the jolly activities mentioned above. What hooked me on black and death metal is actually the instrumental arrangements, not so much the lyrics. If you’ve listened to any of those genres, you’d probably realise that half the time you won’t understand a thing due to the guttural growls and screaming. So how would that influence me to kill a goat, I wouldn’t know.
While I do listen to music from bands like Dimmu Borgir, Emperor, Bathory, Immortal and Behemoth, I’m mainly just hooked on the melodies. Even then, I don’t put their music on loop for long. That is until Ghost burst onto the scene like a bat out of hell.
The late Papa Emeritus III after winning the Grammy.
I was a little late to the sweet sounds of Ghost. I only learned of them when I saw them receiving the award for Best Metal Performance in the 2016 Grammy Awards. When Papa Emeritus III and the Nameless Ghouls went on stage, I turned to Spotify and YouTube to scratch my curiosity.
To my surprise, I was greeted with music that was nowhere near the incomprehensible grunts, growls and screams competing with heavy guitar riffs and powerful drums that I expected. For one, Ghost’s vocalist(s) Papa Emeritus (I, II, III) and Cardinal Copia actually sing and enunciate their words very clearly. Instead of competing with the music, both actually come together to form songs that you can either headbang, dance or sing along to (gasp!).
This is a strange yet welcomed twist for Tobias Forge, the brainchild of Ghost and also the man under the mask and makeup of the three Papa Emerituses (Emeritusi? Emerituss?) and Cardinal Copia. He was formerly from the band Repugnant, which was a very “traditional” death metal band. With Ghost, he goes for a clearer, more melodic singing style that truly showcases his vocal prowess.
The first thing you may notice about the frontman of Ghost is his theatrics. With every album that the band has put forth, a different “Papa” leads the group, each with the similar Satanic priest get-up but very different age and facial features. Other defining factors of each Papa is their attitudes and stage antics.
Papa I tends to walk around on stage and doesn’t do much besides swinging a thurible (used to carry burning incense). Papa II, on the other hand, has a more terrifying look, but is a lot more charismatic and craves attention on stage. Papa III, the youngest of the trio, tends to don suits and boots instead of the papal robes, moves fluidly and has a more sexually-charged demeanour. Papa Nihil (0) is the “progenitor” and he doesn’t perform, but shows up from time to time to play the saxophone.
The band’s current vocalist, Cardinal Copia (center), and Nameless Ghouls looking devilishly dapper.
Initially, the idea for the changing frontmen and masked musicians was just so people would pay attention to the music and not care about who makes it. It also gives Ghost an edge as they are able to dramatise the changing of frontmen, adding to the entertainment value the “brand” brings with it. Unfortunately, as we are in the digital age, Forge was quickly outed as the frontman by fans.
Now, Papa I to III have been declared dead and we now have Cardinal Copia leading the band. He’s not part of the Emeritus lineage and apparently is working to earn the right to don the iconic corpse paint (makeup).
I adore and commend Forge as he is able to take on each persona and make them look and feel so different. One thing that really stands out for all characters is Forge’s natural charisma, charm and stage presence.
But all these are mere cosmetics for the real temptation of Ghost — their music. In their fourth studio album, Prequelle, Forge and co up the ante by melding multiple subgenres of rock and metal together. The album consists of 10 tracks and is 41 minutes of pure joy to listen to. Songs go from traditional metal to instrumental tracks that are a mix of arena, doom and psychedelic rock.
Thematically speaking, Prequelle is based on the Black Death and plagues. Lyrically speaking, while a lot of the songs talk about death and Satan, they actually reek of Forge’s recent legal issues with former bandmates of Ghost, who filed a lawsuit against him. The most obvious of this is the second track “Rats” as the lyrics allude to being stabbed in the back by those you thought you could trust.
“Into your sanctum / You let them in / Now all your loved ones / And all your kin / Will suffer punishments beneath the wrath of God”
With lyrics like that, you’re probably imagining angry and bloodthirsty vocals. Instead, you get Cardinal Copia singing to a very upbeat tune, which is further accentuated by the rather-comical music video.
About two tracks after “Rats”, you get “See the Light”, a synth and power ballad that sounds like something you’d hear during the Sunday mass. So yes, Ghost still pokes fun at Christianity and throws in a smattering of Satanism in their songs — in this case, making fun of the Last Supper and the Holy Communion.
“Pre-Chorus: Every day that you feed me with hate / I grow stronger! / Every day that you feed me with hate / I grow stronger!
Chorus: Drink me, eat me / Then you’ll see the light / Drink me, eat me / Then you’ll see the light”
But the song is also very much about taking the negativity and hate you’re shown by your detractors or enemies and using them to get better. Again, this brings to mind Forge’s legal tussles. Instead of calling it quits, the band actually gets better and Prequelle is currently their best-selling album to date.
Last but not least, an honorary mention for “Dance Macabre” — a song that begins with the powerful tune of an electric guitar ala old hard rock ballads, but very quickly takes a turn. Hints of 80’s disco music comes into the mix, resulting in a macabre song that strangely makes you want to dance.
The lyrics may sound like a sappy love song, but it actually draws inspiration from the period of the Black Death, when there was an outbreak of the bubonic plague in medieval Europe and people partied the night away as they didn’t know if they’d live or die the next day.
“Pre-Chorus: How could it end like this? / There’s a sting in the way you kiss me / Something within your eyes / Said it could be the last time / ‘Fore it’s over!
Chorus: Just wanna be / Wanna bewitch you in the moonlight / Just wanna be / I wanna bewitch you all night”
With Prequelle, there are also two instrumental interludes, “Miasma” and “Helvetesfonster” (Swedish for Hell window). Both these tracks are the embodiment of the albums’ idea and musical style. “Miasma”, which has to be my favourite between the two, begins with what sounds like gentle humming of synthesizers and business quickly picks up with electric guitars and percussions coming into the fray. These elements create a catchy albeit haunting track, then towards the end — around the 4 minute 20 second mark — a saxophone solo slips in out of nowhere.
For me, Prequelle is without a doubt one of the best albums of 2018. The artistes have my respect for trying something very different from what they usually do, and made it work beautifully.
Yeah, this is a lie. Or is it?
P.S. After listening to Prequelle for hours, days and weeks multiple times, I still haven’t had the urge to kill goats or pee on the Bible. Stop blaming the music for humanity’s facepalm-worthy inclinations.
Also published on Medium.