DISGUISED AS METAL In a sense, their Satanism is the least subversive or shocking thing about Ghost
Can rock still be subversive? In the beginning, the attack on the square world was accompanied by a rock-and-roll soundtrack. But these days, what can a poor boy do when a pop-punk song about heroin addiction has been co-opted as the soundtrack for a luxury Caribbean cruise line and everyone else is selling iPads and vodka? Subversion now takes place by other, subtler means (and generally right under our noses), with artists whose music and presentation upturn genre conventions, roping audiences in only to challenge their core assumptions. It's a sleight of hand that Linköping, Sweden's Ghost have been perfecting since 2008: if the Devil's greatest trick was convincing the world that he doesn't exist, then Ghost's greatest trick may be convincing everyone that they're a metal band.
If Ghost were a big-budget Hollywood movie, that film would be dubbed "high concept." They dress in ghoulish face-obscuring robes, with a lead singer in a skull-mask and garish cardinal's outfit, and all of their songs are blatant paeans to Satan. But the music is reined-in hard rock with clean guitar tones, lush vocal harmonies, and well-crafted orchestral arrangements.
And they are completely anonymous: when I was connected via telephone with a representative of the band, I was told I was about to speak with "a nameless ghoul." The band functions as a faceless collective, focusing attention not on their individual identities but on the band's branded theme.
"When we formed," the ghoul explains, in a slightly geeky-sounding Swedish-English accent (which makes talking to a ghoul not as intimidating as you might think), "we kept the whole thing under wraps, with a clandestine behind-the-curtain thought process. It was evident, early on, that this was going to be a very, very thematic band, and also very theatrical."
Ghost's conceit is to flip what it means to sound like metal's forebearers: there is much about last year's debut, Opus Eponymous (Rise Above) that is Sabbath-esque, but not in the stereotypical way. "Most bands who want to ape Sabbath wind up sounding vaguely like them at their hardest," says the ghoul. "They all want to sound like 'Children of the Grave.' But if you listen to those albums, there are ballads, and orchestration. We wanted to create something that sounded like a million-dollar heavy record from 1978!"
So far, they have succeeded wildly, in part by focusing on the melody and labored beauty of what was considered heavy music before modern metal turned it all into aural cookie dough. The chorus to Opus single "Ritual" is a gorgeous earworm, beautiful and melodious — after a listen or two, you'll find it hard to get the dulcet tones of "This chapel of ritual/Smells of dead human sacrifices/From the altar" out of your head. It manages to be too evil for primetime, and too lush and held in check for the world of modern metal. Modern metal fans, especially the younger ones, want to do mosh pits and waltz-of-death dances and whatnot. And we're a band in dresses that sings wimpy tunes. Which doesn't always play well to 14-year-olds that think the best thing in the world is to dive headfirst into cement."