When I intend to listen to an album with the thought of reviewing it, I usually avoid reading other reviews. I want to form my own impressions based solely on the music and pick my own words to describe it; this may explain why my reviews leave so much to be desired. However, I read several reviews of Ghost’s new album Infestissumam before hearing it, because I wasn’t thinking about reviewing it for this site. After all, the music is barely metal, if it’s metal at all. Also, it has actual singing in it.
The reviews I read weren’t in mainstream publications or on mainstream sites, though Infestissimum has been reviewed in plenty of those places. I was reading reviews on metal blogs. I couldn’t help but notice that even most of the positive reviews had a defensive or apologetic tone, a kind of “they’re good for what they do, as long as you’re not expecting X, Y, or Z”. And the negative reviews panned the album for not having enough X, Y, or Z — whatever the reviewer was demanding but couldn’t find in the music, such as heaviness or gripping riffs.
Some of the negative reviews came from people who seemed to really like Ghost’s first album, Opus Eponymous. This later puzzled me after I listened to Infestissimum, because it’s not like the band made some kind of radical course change without putting on the turn signal. I don’t think it’s different enough from the first album to turn praise into a pan.
I began to have a sneaking suspicion that Ghost had become the victim of a combination of two things that don’t go over very well here in the underground: success and gimmickry.
Let’s face it, we really get suspicious of success, especially success that bleeds over into the mainstream. A band can be cool as shit when only you and your close friends have heard of them, but when they get signed by a major label (as Ghost did), when they start getting noticed by the likes of NPR and Spin (as Ghost has), and when even your few hipster friends have heard of the band and consider them cool and “edgy”, then it’s time to decide they suck. They must suck extra hard if their album gets ranked #1 on Billboard’s list of the week’s top-selling hard rock and metal albums (as Infestissimum did this week) and they play the Coachella festival (as Ghost did this month). I mean, seriously, I heard a test was given and Ghost was the only one of the 200 bands at Coachella who could even spell “metal”; Maynard James Keenan must have been too high.
Ghost’s gimmickry may also be wearing thin among metal’s defenders of the faith. It was one thing when the Nameless Ghouls wore simple black hoods and Papa Emeritus just had a mask painted like a skull, though I’m sure there were plenty of of metalheads who scoffed even then. But now Papa and the Ghouls are sporting a changing wardrobe of fancy, custom-made robes, and Papa seems to be sporting a combination of facial prosthetics and elaborate makeup. Hell, a lot of metal fans think bands have sold out if they bathe more than once a week or wash their clothes before they’re so sweat-soaked that they’ll stand up by themselves. Embroidered robes and a mitre that looks like it could be worn by an actual Pope (if he worshipped Satan)? That’s a bridge too far, and then some.
I’m sure some would argue that even Ghost’s overtly satanic lyricism is just a gimmick, just part of the schtick, like referring to their albums as “psalms”, their concerts as “rituals”, attendance at shows as “worship”, and their fans as “children”. Perhaps that’s a correct perception. I’m no expert in satanism and (to the best of my knowledge) I don’t know any practicing satanists, but these dudes don’t seem (or talk) like actual goat-worshippers. They seem like entertainers.
Based on Ghost’s recent Reddit Q&A, it seems the band created their first songs before conceiving the idea of costumes and a skull-painted frontman. They clearly had a concept behind the music from the start (one they seemed to think would appeal mainly to “weed-smoking bands with Black Sabbath shirts”) and they never made any pretense about being “trve”, but they couldn’t possibly have foreseen that they would rocket into the stratosphere, as indeed they have. And one good turn deserves another, so now we have a Ghost merch bundle with a Papa Emeritus dildo and a butt plug. Well, I myself don’t have one, but they can be had. Possibly, Ghost jumped the shark with this idea even among some metal fans who adore Ghost’s music. Others, of course, have been waiting their whole lives for butt plug band merch.
To be fair, gimmickry has been around rock ‘n roll and metal forever, from The Monkeys to The Sex Pistols to Kiss to Slipknot to Gwar, and yet all those bands I just mentioned have also recorded some good songs. So has Ghost. Further, if it’s true that they aren’t really goat-worshippers, that doesn’t distinguish them from most black metal bands who sing about Satan. What’s unclear (as it is in the case of many black metal bands) is whether the satanic lyricism is there just for shock value, or (as it is in the case of many extreme metal bands) as a symbol for disgust with religion or societal repression of individuality, or as . . . something else.
My vote is for “something else”. You can call it a gimmick if you want, but for me it’s an integral part of what makes Ghost’s music so damned memorable and so much fucking fun. I won’t say it’s as important as the band’s ability to write irresistibly catchy melodic hooks and transitions. But if you took away the lyrics, the music wouldn’t be nearly as interesting, because one of its big attractions is the inherent contrast between its 60s and 70s pop airiness (with some mid-80s heavy metal riffs thrown in here and there) and all that stuff about Satan spreading his seed and the faithful coming together for Lucifer’s son, as uttered by a vocalist whose sweet tones are a lot closer to Jonas Renkse than Nergal. The lyrics appeal to the same core impulse that pervades most of metal — the desire to give a stiff middle finger to convention. I don’t really care if hipsters think it’s “edgy”. Fuck them, too.
The truth is that there’s just a shitload of fun to be had in a crowd of 200-300 people at a Ghost show like the one I attended three nights ago, all of them chanting the litany from Infestissimum’s “Year Zero”: “Belial! Behemoth! Beelzebub! . . . Asmodeus! Satanas! Lucifer!” When a band has a vocalist who sings instead of growls or shrieks, the lyrics matter . . . they matter a lot . . . and they put a vital twist on Ghost’s retro melodic styling.
I’ll take the argument a step further and say that the music wouldn’t be the same without the costumes and Papa’s theatrical stage presence — the skull-faced man solemnly conducting a ritual. I know that’s illogical, but it’s true. Go see them sometime and then tell me that the imagery doesn’t affect your appreciation for the music the next time you hear it. The fact that Glen Benton has an inverted cross branded in his forehead adds an extra layer of badass to Deicide’s music. Ghost definitely aren’t going for badass, but their insistence on anonymity and the cloaking of their faces and forms in an inverted representation of ecclesiastical piety adds an extra layer of occult devotion to what’s already there for all to hear in the lyrics. In many ways, there’s a simplicity and innocence to the melodies — and Ghost are bent on corrupting that innocence at the same time as they deliver it.
I will say, however, that I could do without the dildo and the butt plug. Just to be clear.
As for Infestissimum as an album, there are indeed some differences from Opus Eponymus. The production is more polished, though it’s still far from a thoroughly modernized sound. The music isn’t quite as “heavy” — it’s more pop, more psychedelia, and less Sabbath — and the songs aren’t as simple and stripped down. But from my perspective, this is splitting hairs. What makes Ghost’s music so appealing hasn’t changed (and if you never found the music appealing, then that won’t change either): The album is still full of ingeniously catchy songs. Maybe none of them equal “Ritual” in that regard, but songs like “Year Zero”, “Depth of Satan’s Eyes”, and “Monstrance Clock” come awfully close. Even “Secular Haze”, with its weird infernal-carnival atmosphere, has wormed its way into my head and started laying eggs. Damn those worms!
On Infestissimum, Ghost also spread their creative wings, taking their music even further away from metal than Opus. “Ghuleh/Zombie Queen” is a prime example of that. It’s not in my top three picks on the album, but the song is awfully damned interesting. And there are enough old-school heavy metal riffs still lurking here and there on Infestissimum to counter-balance the flights of fancy.
So yes, I’ll confess it, without defensiveness: As someone whose daily listening preferences consist almost entirely of metal that strips paint from the walls and would void the bowels of most citizens, I really like Infestissimum — and I like it for many of the same reasons that cause many staunch metal lovers to turn their backs on it.
Infestissimum can be ordered from the band here, and it’s available everywhere else in creation, too. You can stream the entire album via the YouTube player below — it should move from song to song automatically (showing the art created for each song). If not, go HERE to listen to them individually. And speaking of the art created for each song (by Zbigniew Bielak II), the drawings are fantastic, and many of them are below, with lyrics.