The Swedish band’s irresistible collision of Satanic Metal and kitsch pop reaches the peak of perfection.
It has been said that rock and roll is the Devil’s music, and over the course of rock history, certain artists have taken this quite literally. Thanks largely to the influence of Black Sabbath, the early Seventies saw proto-metal outfits such as Black Widow and Atomic Rooster embracing satanic imagery in a bid to add a dark mystique and risqué edge to their output. Come the next decade, bands like Venom and Mercyful Fate had upped the ante with considerably more blasphemous, explicitly evil lyrical content to match the intensity of the aggressive new form of metal they were creating. From the mid-Eighties on, demonic themes and aesthetics tended to go hand-in-cloven-hoof with the more cacophonous sounds at the thrash/death/black end of the metal spectrum. As a shortcut to generating controversy and attracting the attention of alienated teenage boys, gruesome album covers depicting the agonies of Hell and songs gleefully detailing the disembowelment of nuns, simply could not be beaten.
In 2010, long after Satanic Metal had become passé, the new Swedish band Ghost announced their arrival by presenting an intriguingly subversive agenda: to convert the masses into card-carrying devil-worshippers via the insidious use of seductive pop melodies cloaked in uplifting rock music. Of course, unless you’re completely bereft of humour, this is an amusing, wholly ludicrous proposal. And sure enough, when their debut album arrived, the camp schlock of the lyrics and a record sleeve that shared more in common with Scooby Doo than Hieronymus Bosch, made it clear that Ghost were none-too-serious in their aims. However, far from being some one-dimensional joke, Opus Eponymous was a very impressive album. At times recalling the sophisticated classic rock of Blue Oyster Cult and brimming over with unshakeable hooks, it was clearly the work of uncommonly gifted songwriters and musicians with an acute understanding of effective musical dynamics. That both are rare commodities in modern rock – let alone metal – probably better explains Ghost’s swelling international following than the satanic sensationalism and theatrical stage presentation.
So how does an increasingly popular but divisive metal band respond to the protests of its detractors; the dull-minded traditionalists who accuse Ghost of being ‘not heavy enough’, ‘cheesy’, or a ‘novelty band’? By succumbing to commercial pressures, adapting their music in an attempt to become all things to all people? Not Ghost. In fact, with their second album – one of the most radical, playful works to emerge from the metal scene in many years – they gave the narrow-minded much, much more to complain about.
Fans of Opus Eponymous are unlikely to be shocked or surprised by the first two tracks. Infestissumam (Latin for ‘hostile’) begins as a mood-setting choral piece akin to the debut’s opener before battering drums shatter the solemn ambience and the album explodes spectacularly into life. The sound of Jerry Goldsmith’s Ave Satani colliding with full-tilt pomp-metal, it’s a breathtaking, majestic introduction. Per Aspera Ad Inferi follows without pause, and it’s one of two tracks here that could have sat comfortably on the debut’s tracklist. The chugging mid-paced riffs and 60’s psych vocals indicate that Ghost may well have chosen to adhere to a winning formula. But then things get very strange indeed….
Circus-macabre keyboards and serpentine guitars coiling around a waltz rhythm signal a definite shift towards the leftfield. The mysterious, doom-laden Secular Haze has much more in common with The Doors than the guitar-dominated onslaught of Ghost’s supposed contemporaries in modern metal. There’s an artistic restraint here; a delicate use of theatrical light and shade largely absent from post-1970’s rock.
Effecting another violent switch in tone and pace, Jigolo Har Megiddo has the eager-to-please bounce of a 1974 Wonderstuff. Now, this could be disastrous for numerous reasons, but its infectious energy and overt pop hooks are impossible to resist, especially in the context of that portentous Latin title and antichrist-as-ladykiller lyrics. In fact, it’s the combination of saccharine pop (in the very best sense), the unholy subject matter, and the concept that Ghost are perceived as a metal band, that makes Infestissumam so subversive, to a comical level at times. Body & Blood could almost be the work of an early Seventies bubblegum act if it didn’t also have a similar subliminal eeriness to that which crawls under the surface of B.O.C’s Secret Treaties (1974). Idolatrine – which sounds like an early Pink Floyd hit penned by Mike Batt – is even more jaunty and yet more glaringly sinister with its cleverly-placed minor chords, clearly designed to unsettle, and breezy ‘suffer little children’ sing-a-long.
During its first few minutes, the album epic Ghuleh/Zombie Queen is all Welcome To My Nightmare atmospherics; sparse piano, claustrophobic vocals, and a heartrending keyboard refrain. When a stereotypical chugging guitar riff springs from nowhere, the seasoned rock fan will no doubt be expecting the blitzkrieg that invariably follows any subdued moody intro on a metal record. Not here. Instead, Ghost launches into what can inadequately be described as a hybrid of surf music and pomp rock – complete with twangy Link Wray licks and breathlessly escalating chord changes. Becoming layered with vocal harmonies you would normally find on a Nuggets psychedelia compilation, the piece gains momentum as it drives towards a glorious finale of slashing apocalyptic power chords and choral splendour (apologies, but that is the only appropriate word).
Evoking images of civilisation-crushing tsunami waves and cities being pummelled into rubble by earthquakes, Year Zero would be the ideal soundtrack to such a cinematic Armageddon. A monumental piece that derives as much power from sweeping keyboards and a ritualistic chant – “Belial, Behemoth, Beelzebub, Asmodeus…” as it does from distorted guitars and pounding drums. However, as if conscious of neglecting their roots (and a proportion of their fanbase), Ghost later returns to a more straightforward metal sound with The Depths Of Satan’s Eyes. One of the less memorable songs, it nevertheless harks back to the gothic melodrama of Ozzy’s Diary Of A Madman with satisfying results. Another key influence makes his presence felt on the closing track Monstrance Clock. But, naturally, as a born-again Christian Alice Cooper would never sing the words “Come together for Lucifer’s son”. While its final chorus proves a suitably grandiose way to end Infestissumam, prior to that the song is somewhat leaden and repetitive compared to what has come before.
Despite an underwhelming climax, Infestissumam is everything any admirer of Opus Eponymous could have hoped for. Experimental, mischievous, thrillingly dramatic and brutally heavy when the need arises, it also sees Ghost continuing to write great pop melodies albeit of a less immediate kind than before. And if all this means that loudly singing Year Zero in the shower will result in an eternity of hellish torment, then perhaps that’s just the price you pay for having exemplary taste in rock music.
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