Ghost, Forum, London, gig review: Swedish metal occultists continue to captivate the nation’s blackened hearts

Remfry Dedman
Ghost performing at the O2 Forum, London on 26th March, 2017: Paul Harries

The continued prominent rise of the theatrical, satanic spectacle that is Ghost has been an inexplicable (if extremely welcome) shot in the arm to the genre of heavy metal. A classic case of not judging a book by its cover, Ghost’s visual aesthetic led many to immediately assume they would share the same sonic space as the brutal, relentless battering provided by the likes of Bathory or Behemoth, and for a short while, the band seemed content to wed themselves to this underground association quite happily. In reality, musically at least, their 70’s occult-led classic rock stylings owe more to Blue Öyster Cult, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and, bizarrely, ABBA! These songs are undoubtedly accessible melodious affairs designed to seduce your aural receptors rather than batter them. Once word spread that the anonymised sextet were more likely to write songs about pleasuring a woman as opposed to decapitating them, Ghost’s steady meteoric rise began post-haste.

The (anti)-religious iconography is the main inspirational thread lifted from the world of extreme metal (with particular attention paid to Mercyful Fate one suspects). It’s a striking visual aesthetic to say the least; a purportedly ever-changing vocalist (Papa Emeritus, currently in his third incarnation) disguised in a prosthetic face, corpse paint and bishop’s robes playing the role of a demonic anti-pope, flanked by five masked figures in black simply referred to as ‘Nameless Ghouls’. Purists might argue that the theatrics and garb serve merely as distraction but in Ghost’s case, this kind of reductionist thinking is clearly utter drivel, so intertwined are the visuals and the music. The mystique created by Ghost is one sorely lacking in a world where social media catalogues every step, breath and bowel movement of our favourite artists.

The identity of the six members of Ghost remains a mystery, although rumours circulate the internet (Paul Harries)

Now, after three albums (each better and grander than the last) and two EPs (one produced by Dave Grohl), the band have climbed up the ranks, gradually selling out every theatre venue the capital has to throw at them, first Koko, then the Palladium and tonight, the Forum. Some industry types (those people that stand at the back of shows, drinking and chatting with an air of aloof dispassionate nonchalance) believe that Ghost have every chance of becoming ‘the next big thing’ in metal. There are even hopes that in a world destitute of new, alternative heavy festival headliners, Ghost might one day be in with a chance of headlining the likes of Download and Hellfest. Some may balk, but considering their considerable growth from the underworld on 2010’s debut album Opus Eponymous to this evening’s much more extravagant forum celebrating new EP Popestar, this prediction may not be as delirious as some might think.

If crowd reaction is a barometer for such things (and surely, it is!) then judging by this evening, it may happen sooner than you think. When the lights go down and the Ghouls peel out the opening riff to Square Hammer, the reception is frenzied. When Papa Emeritus III appears seemingly out of thin air, the response is pure hysteria. Ghost are leaving nothing to chance for their biggest show in the capital to date and the holy triumvirate of Square Hammer, From The Pinnacle to the Pit and Secular Haze is surely the strongest opening this band has ever had. The mass sing-a-longs to Cirice and He Is, two of the strongest cuts from 2015’s Meliora album, lift the songs to devotional heights and show the fervour with which fans have taken this band to their blackened hearts. The music Ghost write is incredibly broad as well; Ghuleh / Zombie Queen manages to marry a surf guitar riff, gentle piano balladry, Gregorian chanting and what could easily be mistaken for the theme tune of a lost 80’s BBC Science Fiction serial and wrap the whole she-bang up in ghoulish occult trimmings.

Papa Emeritus III seduces the London crowd at the Forum, 26th March 2017 (Paul Harries)

Year Zero perfectly encapsulates the absurd theatrical carnival of the macabre that the band seek to create, as hellfire (pyro to you and me) engulfs the stage, whilst a 2,000-strong chorus of patrons sing the catchy , melodious refrain ‘Hail Satan / Archangelo / Hail Satan / Welcome year zero’. When the theatrics reach their height, as they do during this song, it is glorious to behold but if there is a grumble with the whole ghoulish spectacle, it’s simply that a band with this sort of aesthetic should be aiming much higher than a cool backdrop, some neat steps, a bit of pyro (sorry ... hellfire!) and A LOT of smoke machines! Budget constraints may be an issue at present (although judging by the price and quantity of merch sold this evening, it shouldn’t be a problem for long) but with a decent budget and a few brilliant ideas, we could have a stage show that emerges as one of the truly astonishing extravaganzas of heavy metal.

At present, Ghost’s songs are arena-sized even if their stage-show isn’t quite on par, but with the momentum they have behind them and the devotion they inspire, it would be foolish to bet against their ascent to the hallowed halls of heavy metal. Ending, as they always do, with the paean to the female orgasm that is Monstrance Clock (sample lyric: Come together / Together as one / Come together / For Lucifer’s Son), it’s difficult to have anything but admiration for a band who’ve managed to marry such grand musical aspirations to devilish tongue-in-cheek pomp. If their fourth album, due in 2018, manages to repeat the formula and expand yet further on the grandiose, opulent diabolical undertones, we could be looking at the world’s first household Satanic band.

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