Swedish devil-metal group Ghost has had a good few years. With three releases under their belt and a legion of loyal, obsessive fans, Papa Emeritus and his ghouls are enjoying some well deserved fame. This hasn’t always been the case, especially on this side of the Atlantic. Due to their use of evocative religious imagery, Ghost has had a hard time gaining momentum here in the states. But, they’ve proven that, with good enough hooks and melodies, and enough hilarious videos like the one for ‘Cirice’ to convince their fans that they are more impish trolls than Satan spawn, a band can go by far. Their single from Meliora, ‘Cirice’, won the Grammy Award for Best Heavy Metal Song in 2015.
I first heard Ghost on Late Night with Steven Colbert last Halloween. They performed ‘Cirice’, and completed it with a faux exorcism. Colbert, himself a devout Catholic, introduced them with a devious smirk, as Papa Emeritus III (dressed up as a skeletal pope-like figure) sang passionately. I was immediately mesmerized by the extremely catchy hooks and the over-the-top imagery. I immediately looked up their new album, Meliora, and fell in love. As a progressive rock fan, I delight in theatrics that verge on absurd, so I was unashamed to say that Ghost was one of my most anticipated concerts of the year. I had seen publicity photos and live videos, and it looked to be an incredible show.
The opening band was a doom(ish) metal band called Pinkish Black. They were quite interesting melodically, and they produced an impressive amount of sound for a 2 piece. Tempo can be an issue in doom metal, because it’s hard to keep time when you are plodding along to chunky riffs, and it seemed like they lost time a few instances during their set. The singer had a spooky baritone, and the overall sound of the band fit at least the ‘haunting’ part of the Ghost aesthetic, although it seemed like a lot of fans were looking forward to the more upbeat songs from the headliners. Pinkish Black left the stage, and beautiful choral music started to play. After a few minutes wait, two men dressed as priests of some sort came out and ceremonially unshrouded the instruments onstage to great applause. They lit incense sticks and prepped the stage visually for the band.
Papa Emeritus and the ghouls emerged and opened with one of their bruisers, ‘From the Pinnacle to the Pit.’ They were pitch perfect, and played along in sync with an orchestral track that features choirs and additional harmonies, so their sound was lush and full. Papa’s movements were strong and intentional and hypnotic, and the ghouls played their instruments with reckless pomp and glee. ‘Cirice’ was one of the highlights of the night- there was a palpable energy in the room that skyrocketed as they segued into ‘Year Zero’ as a follow up. During the absurdly blasphemous chorus, Papa Emeritus would just hold the microphone out to the crowd as they filled in every word, and he would gaze into the crowd with fiery eyes. ‘Ghuleh/Zombie Queen’ was a highlight for me, as it is one of my favorite Ghost tracks, and I think that everyone in the room sang along with the chorus. The concert ended in typical Ghost fashion with their song ‘Monstrance Clock,’ but Papa Emeritus had to pause a bit before so that he could give a lesson to the crowd about how to be a good lover.
Speaking to that: one of the big surprises of the night was that Papa Emeritus, despite his creepy appearance, was sort of a goofball. The show left spaces in between songs for him to childishly riff. He’d make obvious cheap shots, like “Here in Kentucky, you guys like your chicken. And your bourbon, eh?” His presence was less of an evil demon and more of the kind of scuzzy, mysterious foreign exchange student that moves into your town one summer and always tries to convince you and your friends to engage in questionable behavior. He did get scary at one point though. A dude up front attempted to crowdsurf during ‘Monstrance Clock’, and he gazed at him and shouted, ‘GET DOWN, YOU M**********R” (you can fill in the blanks with whichever word you like). He seemed genuinely enraged, and he scowled and pointed at the wiry metalhead as he wriggled out of the room in the arms of several burly security guards.
Papa Emeritus angrily chews out the audience member around 4:25 as a ghoul wags his finger disapprovingly
I’ll take an aside to describe the crowd a bit. I’ll admit, I was a little nervous going in. I bought my tickets early and they sold out really quickly, which meant I realized I might be at this concert alone. Furthermore, I realized I may have not really fit the metal aesthetic in my appearance- I came to the concert straight after work so I was rocking a button up and some khakis. All of my worries were out the door as I began to chat with the folks in line. One thing to remember about metal fans: they are an accepting bunch. In the concert hall, I was surrounded by teenagers, millennials, older folks, a retired Coast Guard colonel, people dressed up as zombies and ghouls, regular looking dudes and dudettes like me- there was even a little kid wearing a Papa Emeritus getup. All of them were singing along, headbanging, screaming, and throwing up the horns like a big happy family. I also ran into one of my high school friends and his crew (his girlfriend, Catherine, provided the pictures for this review). I was thrilled that they seemed about as enthusiastic about seeing Ghost as I was. The enthusiasm of the crowd was definitely one of the highlights of the show.
All in all, the Ghost show was one of my concert highlights for the year so far, and if fun was the principal metric involved, seeing Ghost was maybe among the top 3 most fun concerts I’ve ever been to. I probably could’ve stayed for another hour or so, maybe two….OK, I kind of wanted to live in that concert. Don’t judge. Needless to say, if you can get past the blasphemy and heretical imagery, Ghost put on a spectacular show and were a force to be reckoned with.