Sunday, 16 June 2019

Opus Eponymous - Ghost

Provenance: For a band who I've followed avidly since they first burst onto the scene about ten years ago, my memories of how I became with Ghost acquainted are fuzzy.

I certainly recall my first live encounter with the band - March 2013, when they headlined that year's Jagermeister Tour; support acts were Gojira and The Defiled. Caught it down in Bournemouth with a few friends and family, tickets costing a princely five quid. Even back then, Ghost put on a hell of a show.

Anyway, last month I spent a week in North Macedonia and listened to fourth album Prequelle on the flights there and back. Having initially dismissed the latest as a bit ballad-heavy, I am now inclined to see it as their strongest album to date. So, having recently used this blog to pretend that I'm an adult with grown-up tastes, I now think it's time to check out a bunch of Scandinavians who wear masks and pretend to worship Satan.

Review: Prior to pressing 'play' on my stereo, I had a horrible impression that I was going to be less than fair with Opus Eponymous. What I saw in Bournemouth all those years ago was exciting and theatrical, but absolutely nothing like the slick outfit Ghost have subsequently become (I saw them in Brighton a couple of years ago for significantly more than a Lady Godiva). Likewise, the music on Prequelle is rich in texture and nuance, great swathes of orchestration wrapping around songs that have one eye on the charts (NB: this album didn't do any business in the US, whilst Prequelle peaked at number three on the Billboard Top 200).

Then again, at this point in time, there was still a lot of fun to be had around Ghost's identities. Taking a leaf out of the Kiss playbook, the songwriting on Opus Eponymous was credited to 'a Ghoul Writer'; the frontman was the mysterious Papa Emeritus, and the band referred to as 'a host of Nameless Ghouls'. Furthermore, the album sported cool artwork and reinvigorated a strain of metal that could be subtle yet heavy, sinister yet campy and unafraid to revel in showmanship. In short, they basically revived 1972-77 era Blue Oyster Cult, but this time, with added devilry.

(Even the symbol Ghost use has a touch of the Kronos motif Blue Oyster Cult deployed on all their albums. Catnip for BOC geeks such as myself.)

I don't think it comes as a surprise that a collection quite so schlocky as Opus Eponymous opens up with a church organ dirge. Pretty standard stuff, really, when it comes to albums that celebrate Old Nick. All well and good for setting the scene, but it's over quite quickly and we're into the galloping 'Con Clavi Con Dio', which is what all of us in the peanut gallery came for. It's fucking badass - and makes me realise that although Ghost were working with a much more basic palette than on subsequent releases, that ability to fuse tunefulness and heaviness was there from the word go. One suspects that were this to appear on Meliora or Prequelle, it would be washed with keyboards and other such orchestration. One thing that does stand out is that the music has more 'gaps' than the thick tapestry of sound that typifies later releases.

Still, this no-frills approach gives it a pleasingly retro feel. Vocals aside, much of Opus Eponymous sounds like it could've been disinterred from the mid-1970s, or maybe the first dark flowering of the NWOBHM. This ersatz dustiness - a false vintage - perhaps puts Ghost, at least here, in the bracket of some kind of eldritch Sha Na Na, inviting the listener on a journey to a time that never quite took place in the first place. I'm not suggesting for a moment that Ghost belong in any serious kind of discussion about hauntology but their Blue Oyster Cult cosplay act is damn convincing.

I keep mentioning BOC here, and at this juncture I should also throw in other obvious influences such as Mercyful Fate, Alice Cooper, the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Slayer; they're all there. But - but - but - you can taste the fact that Tobias Forge (the leader and frontman of Ghost) is intimately familiar with Long Island's finest between, especially that golden stretch between Tyranny and Mutation and Spectres. Damn it all, the keys in 'Con Clavi Con Dio' sound like they've been ripped from 'Tattoo Vampire'. Elsewhere, there are echoes of 'Flaming Telepaths', 'Career of Evil', 'Quicklime Girl' - the good news is that Forge's borrowings are from the absolute prime cuts, so it's all good. Greta Van Fleet, take note; when you want to emulate your heroes, just try and do it well in the first instance, yeah?

In any case, none of this would add up to a hill of beans if the songs aren't there - and, praise Satan, they really are. Forge isn't a screamer; in fact, for a metal singer his voice is quite soft, made even more pliant by enunciation informed by his Swedish background. However, if anything this makes the music sound even more unworldly and uncanny; compare and contrast with Kiss, who for all their attempts to shock polite society, couldn't hide the fact that they were a bunch of Noo Yawk schlubs if their lives depended on it. Instead, Forge relies on a building a sense of drama and majesty to propel his infernal ditties and it works splendidly. Ghost celebrate the Father of Lies with all the pomp and ceremony of a High Mass, and choruses to tracks such as 'Elizabeth' (about Elizabeth Bathory), 'Stand By Him' and 'Death Knell' simultaneously soar to the heavens and plumb the fiery depths.

Having listened to Opus Eponymous again, so soon after spending a lot of time with Prequelle, has brought me not only a sense of relief (i.e. that it's a banger) but also reminded me why I was so revved up by Ghost almost a decade ago. It's yanked me back to a small concert room in Bournemouth, and to marvelling at the audacity of trying to conceal the band's identities in the online age. The latter couldn't last, of course, but I enjoyed the schtick at the time. With a whiff of brimstone and a smear of greasepaint, Ghost delved backwards to bring the joy of the old-timey rock 'n' roll spectacle to the twenty-first century, for which we should all be grateful.

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