It was Good Friday and I found myself at an evening Mass waiting for the procession to begin. The pulpit, so grandly decorated for the night’s festivities, was back-dropped by what seemed to be ancient, stained-glass windows.
Choral chants began filling the room and, as the angels’ names inspired quiet observance among gathered parishioners, the clergymen patiently proceeded to the altar. Each cloaked in ceremonial robes, they assumed their posts to welcome the priest. But, what followed was no ordinary religious service. For the love of Satan, what followed was Ghost, a Swedish heavy metal band with a flair for the devotional arts.
Papa Emeritus, the central figure/band-leader of Ghost, took the stage with calculated elegance, exhibiting a nuanced, stately body language quite befitting of his regal attire. All kidding aside: if the Pope wanted to look like a more evil and metallic version of himself, he would dress like Papa Emeritus.
Despite the heavy robe draped over his frame, Emeritus’ hands moved like trained swans, speaking fluently, and with measured gestures, to communicate mutual respect with the audience. His funereal, corpse-painted face broadcast a steely gaze from beneath lofty Papal head-wear; this was no proselytizing fire and brim-stoner fronting a reverse Christian rock band.
Believers and non-believers, alike, are drawn to his kingly ‘sprezatura’ and natural sense of theatre, but it is the music that puts the asses in the pews on Good Friday. And, it’s the music that amplifies Ghost’s very simple, (un)holy message. In the words of Emeritus: “We all go down together.”
Ghost opened its sermon with the title track from its latest LP, Infestissumam, beckoning guitars to light the candles as Latin-tongued verses brought forth the band’s particular gospel of devil worship. But, doom and gloom was nowhere to be found in this sound, because Ghost is not trying to scare anyone. The band members have an uplifting energy that shines through every song, handily subverting the industry stereotype and distancing themselves from legions of ‘satanic metal maniacs.’
“Per Aspera Ad Inferi,” established the evening’s ceremonial rhythm; rich tones of pipe organ striking in staccato with booming drums as the processional leader sung with his hand stretched toward to the skies. Although Emeritus would stand out it any crowd, it sure does help that all his fellow band-mates are totally cloaked in darkness.
Each of the five musicians wore a hooded, midnight robe and a Darkman-style facial covering to completely obscure themselves, from head to toe. They are self-proclaimed, “Unnamed Ghouls” whose anonymity only enhances the function of their devotional art. Yet, even from beneath the black veil, they emit a spirit of revelry and, dare I say, ‘devil-may-care’ attitude.
After literally taking communion, one by one, from a set-piece that looked like an evil bird-bath, the ghouls returned to their stations. “Prime Mover” rose up from speakers to animate the back-lit fog with heavy abandon. By the time Ghost embarked upon its twisted romantic ode, “Elizabeth,” the pulpit-master had truly caught the spirit, his mannerisms growing more passionate and searching.
“How are you doing tonight?” he asked between songs. “I see a lot of familiar faces here.” As one of the familiars, I raised my drink in recognition. But, then I recognized that Emeritus looked different from the last time I saw Ghost at the same venue (Stage AE)
‘Wait, isn’t he technically a new Papa?’ I asked myself, remembering how Ghost recently held a ceremony to commemorate the proverbial passing of the torch from Papa Emeritus I to Papa Emeritus II. Many believe that the same vocalist is still performing under the new identity, but nobody knows for sure. Regardless of the skepticism, the band has effectively established a new figurehead of similar stature, yet slightly different temperament. Emeritus II is the people’s Papa, at least compared to his tight-lipped and traditional predecessor.
I felt like a spooked pilgrim when I turned a corner and bumped into Emeritus II, who was decked out in his full regalia, as he emerged from the bathroom area during the opening band’s set. Fully possessed of calm and purpose, he made his way toward the thick of the crowd, slowly gliding through his followers like a human ‘Pope-Mobile.’ Pausing amid the masses, his hat gently peaking above the surroundings, he took pictures with fans and gave various non-verbal blessings of good faith before disappearing like a specter.
When trotting out its “Death Knell,” the band took a ferocious approach, transforming a dark and brooding exaltation of the devil into twinkling spirals of mind-expansion. Two minutes later, I was bearing witness to the semi-unfathomable: tons of metal-heads raising hands into goat-horns during a Beatles song.
“Here Comes the Sun” sounded incredible, its pastry-like delicacy fully preserved and wonderfully re-served with a different focus (and even a call-and-response ending). Once the oscillating keys and rhythm section galloped their way through the instrumental, “Genesis,” some mellifluous guitars cascaded down to guide the procession to its close.
Much to the delight of a cheering Easter weekend crowd, Ghost returned to the stage to be warmly received like a re-risen deity. Emeritus II opened up a little bit and began prefacing the encore with a few heavily-accented words of wisdom. “While we are spreading a message here, we would like to play you some music and words from a crazy man in Texas.”
The band immediately dove into a stunning cover of Roky Erickson’s “If You Have Ghosts,” rendering it in crisp, new fashion. Ghost added some symphonic textures to the song, tightening it up while still paying tribute to its original sonic essence. Playing with the high-and-low vocals lines, Emeritus II shined as a spotlight singer, reminding everyone that he and his fellow ghouls are musicians first, and Satanists second.