August 27, 2018

From The Vaults: Ghost


    My poor mother must have had worried what exactly we were up to.  The Twig decided to learn Hoyt Axton’s song The Pusher off the eponymous first album by Steppenwolf.  With us practicing in the basement at our normal volume (loud), there is no possible way she could have missed Mike singing the chorus.  If you haven’t heard the song, suffice to say that it had a simple, no nonsense message: “&*^  @%$# the pusher man”.  When she asked me about a lyric that I am sure had offended more than a few parents, I danced around it a little by explaining that, “It is an anti-drug song” (a “pusher” being one who sells illegal drugs) and that “It is being played on the radio.”  What I didn’t say that it was probably being played on college FM radio stations that were a little less strict than AM stations at the time, but she wasn’t buying what I was selling. “I don’t like it and I don’t want to hear it in my basement again.”  I made a mental note that she didn’t say, “Never play it again,” and further concluded that she would really worry if she knew that we were listening to the earliest Black Sabbath LPs with an ear toward learning a song or two from them.

    Black Sabbath was always an interesting band because as a male teenage band member, they pushed all the right buttons.  Aggressive music with crunching chords, heavy riffs, bass and drums pounding away and a unique lead singer who made their music work.  What I never understood was the whole ‘anti-Christ, Dark Prince (one of singer Ozzy Osbourne’s many nicknames)’ schtick. It was their prime marketing tool and it did upset some folks, but maybe that was the whole intent:  to attract attention. Yes, they were one of the originators of the whole heavy metal genre of music, but I don’t recall anyone really taking the ‘dark’ thing very seriously. They began as a more traditional blues band called Earth.  John Osbourne (‘Ozzy’ came later) originally gained admittance to the band because he had a P.A., not because he wrote sinister lyrics. No doubt the imagery and song titles (Black Sabbath, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, War Pigs as examples) were disturbing to some and in a move to stand out from every other band, they adopted their name from the title of one of the first songs they wrote, Black Sabbath.  Okay, I never blasted Sabbath on the stereo when my mom and dad were home, but I never felt like listening to or learning songs by Black Sabbath put me on the hot rails to you-know-where.  Most of this history lesson is now moot as Sabbath has called it a day as a touring band. Perhaps you are now wondering why the title of this FTV is “Ghost” and not “Black Sabbath.” Let me explain.

    I find that musical trends are cyclical.  The music that was once old is new again. Take the genre referred to as ‘Rockabilly’.  The earliest days of rock and roll were populated by many bands playing an early form of Rockabilly music.  Even Chuck Berry wrote a lot of songs leaning in this direction. Some years (or decades) passed and suddenly the airwaves were assaulted by The Stray Cats with their stripped down instrumentation and greased up hair playing Rockabilly (again).  The rumour about the end of Sabbath arrived about the same time I heard the band Ghost and my first thought was, “Well, there is a band who might fill the void that Black Sabbath will leave.”

    Originating in Sweden, Ghost was marketed on this side of the pond as ‘Ghost BC’ for a while due to some glitch in the way band names are registered in Europe and in the USA.  When they became a little more well known, the ‘BC’ vanished but their carefully honed image did not. They didn’t exactly copy the Black Sabbath template, but they certainly used it as a foundation for their own carefully crafted image.  Only recently has it been revealed that the whole affair has been orchestrated by one Tobias Forge. This information only came out because he was brought to court by some of the former musicians who felt they were not being compensated enough for their contributions to the band’s growing popularity.  Forge says they were brought in only as sideman, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

    First, let us look at their image.  The initial version of Ghost I saw featured a lead singer who looked to be going to a Halloween Ball dressed as the Pope, mitre, staff and all.  Upon closer inspection, he turned out to look more like an anti-Pope with his ghostly face makeup, black garb and upside down crucifix motifs on display.  On the first album, the singer was called Pappa Emeritus but he was then replaced by Papa Emeritus II on the second album. Papa III emerged for Ghost’s third offering , 2015s Meliora.  The backstory for each album told how the ‘succession’ of each Papa had occurred, but make no doubt about it, each one was Tobias Forge sporting prosthetic makeup and ghostly face paint.  Keeping one step ahead of his growing fan base, Forge concocted yet another persona for their 2018 release Prequelle.  Shedding the Pope-like garb, he now dresses more like a black Cardinal and calls this version of himself Cardinal Copia.  Forge was very happy with his anonymity before his former bandmates (or sidemen or hired guns – you can decide) sued him in a royalty dispute.  Now he is content to tell his side of the story while still jealously guarding his privacy.

    Speaking of the sidemen, they were only credited as ‘Nameless Ghouls’.  On the first EP (If You Have Ghost), they sported long hooded robes with their faces obscured by a black veil that made them resemble Grim Reapers toting guitars, keyboards, and drums.  By Meloria,  the robes had given way to black pants and shirt outfits with the Nameless Ghoul’s faces now covered by golden masks sprouting devilish horns.  During interviews conducted with Nameless Ghouls, they never revealed their true identities leading some to now believe that at times, they may have been interviewing Forge himself.  I had seen a video of Papa III (minus his mitre but still in the black garb and face paint) and a guitarist Ghoul giving a short acoustic concert at Amoeba Records in Los Angeles. With the songs stripped down to this bare bones level, it was interesting to listen to the music with much less production, but his accent seemed to be more than a bit contrived on this occasion.  At least in this instance, there was a Nameless Ghoul taking part in the interview next to Papa III/Forge, yet it was clear who was steering the ship.

    What about the music, you ask?  Hint number one: Dave Grohl (Nirvana, Foo Fighters) produced and played on Ghost’s first EP.  Hint number two: The Foos, Iron Maiden, and Metallica have become fans and taken Ghost out on tour as an opening act.  Watching Ghost manhandle 200,000 fans at Rock in Rio says, “Yes, they can play live and produce music that fans react to.”  Their single Cirice picked up US cred by winning a Grammy in 2016 and they have been topping the Swedish music charts right along.  The best description of Ghost’s music I have read came from Classic Rock Magazine in the summer of 2018:  “The heaviness Ghost always have in reserve is leavened by giant pop choruses, artfully splicing Sweden’s melodic rock and black-metal traditions.  Ghost gigs are like Queen stumbling on to the set of a Hammer horror film.” Heavy pop horror music? Let us take a look at Prequelle  track by track and see if this description holds true.

    The opening track (Ashes) is a slight take on the tune of Ring Around The Rosie ending with a little musical interlude of big chord accents and tinkling piano that lasts a little over a minute.  Before you can even think about what just came out of the speakers, a stomping, syncopated drum beat carries into the a crunchy guitar riff of Rats and the vocal begins with “In times of trouble, in times like these”.  Whether he is talking about politics now or the medieval plagues of old, this track is getting enough radio play to bring in even more fans than their Grammy winning single, Cirice.  While it covers a rather dark topic (Rats could be about either the medieval or political plagues mentioned above), but there is no mistaking the guitar riffing, background chorus and vocals for Black Sabbath or Abba.  It is heavy and poppy at the same time, but yet it rocks. Like Sabbath, Forge writes songs with some dark themes, but the music is far from dark and brooding. Hearing these songs on the radio without seeing all the dark mysterious garb, it would be hard not to like the sound Ghost creates.

    Tracks three and four (Faith and See The Light) offer more catchy drum/guitar interplay and a surprisingly sweet sounding vocal.  See The Light has another chorus that could be attributed to the politics of the day:  “Every day that you feed me with hate, I grow stronger.”  Cardinal Copia   arranges and sings themes that have multiple meanings carried by catchy melodies.  Then comes the instrumental Miasma.  It begins with a very churchy sounding organ swell, speeds up into a guitar riff backed by heavy drums with added synthesizer flourishes.  The pace quickens and it is heavy, orchestral, and melodic all at the same time. This ain’t heavy black metal, folks, and when the sax chimes in at about the four minute mark (yes, sax… imagine sax on a Black Sabbath tune if you can), it shouldn’t work, but it does.  

    From the melodic instrumental of Miasma, track 6 begins with an infectious bass drum beat leading to a catchy verse and chorus.  The title may be Danse Macabre and the theme of ‘Just want to be, I want to bewitch you, in the moonlight’ sounds like ‘I want to be with you’.   The synthesizer parts remind me more of the band Europe (Final Countdown) than any sort of black metal music.  Pro Memoria’s grand introduction evokes the Moody Blues performing in a cathedral with shades of Mike Oldfield’s piano work in Tubular Bells thrown in.  Okay, the lyrics are about death (“Don’t forget about dying, Don’t forget about your friend death, Don’t forget that you will die”),  but despite the subject matter, in Forge’s hand’s it doesn’t sound foreboding.  Witch Image is orchestration is similar to Pro Memoria, but the theme here is “What you sold you can not unsell” and “What you have done you can not undo.”  A lilting flute over the now familiar solid drum and full band arrangement is featured in the second instrumental “Helvetesfonster” making me think that Tobias Forge has heard more than his share of songs by Nightwish.  Life Eternal closes the CD with a light piano/vocal touch that builds (again in a Nightwish kind of epic crescendo):  “This is the moment of letting go, Can you hear me say your name forever.”  The CD has two bonus tracks, It’s A Sin and Avalanche.  The former is an upbeat, bright piece of dance-pop while the later is the most dark and brooding track on the whole disk.  Ghost, like Black Sabbath, is a band that has a style that can be enjoyed by a large audience, but some will be turned off by the marketing

image that the band uses to set themselves apart from the rest.

    The coda to The Pusher story shows that a band made up of teenagers can make good and bad judgements, at times one right after the other.  When informed that The Pusher was no longer allowed in our basement rehearsal space, Mike and Gene had no problem with that.  We also knew that it wouldn’t cut it if played at a high school dance (both good judgements on our part).  As mentioned, bad can follow good very easily in the minds of teenage band members. We were scheduled to play at a U.P. wide church youth group gathering in Gladstone the next Saturday.  Mike was in charge of the set list with occasional input from Gene and myself, so when he was calling off the songs we as we were playing, it never dawned on him that playing The Pusher at this youth rally/dance was probably not a great idea.  The youth minister from Messiah Lutheran had gotten us the gig and arranged a U-Haul trailer to get our equipment to Gladstone. On the way home, he casually mentioned, “I had to convince them to not pull the plug after you played ‘that song’” and immediately we knew which song he was referring to.  “A good message but the wrong place to deliver it,” he said, “maybe save that one for the Frat parties.” We learned a bunch of performing lessons over the years, but this one taught me that different audiences require different handling. If you want to get a return gig, you better understand what they want (and in this case ‘don’t want’) to hear.  Keep an ear out for Ghost on WOAS-FM 88.5.

Top Piece Video – Here is Ghost with Cardinal Copia and their promo video for the new single Rats