Apr 302013
 

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.

http://ghost-official.com/
https://www.facebook.com/thebandghost

 

  32 Responses to “SOME REFLECTIONS ON THE GHOST PHENOMENON AND “INFESTISSUMAM””

  1. Good read (and very cool artwork) but there’s one error. I’ve made the correction for you:

    “The fact that Glen Benton has an inverted cross branded in his forehead adds an extra layer of dumbass to Deicide’s music.”

  2. Dat artwork is money!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Can you believe I still haven’t heard a note of Ghost, I even have the debut album sitting on the shelf at home!!!!!!!!!

  3. Maybe I’m missing something, but I can’t stand these guys. Is it there schtick that’s appealing? It can’t be the music…

    • I would never accuse anyone who doesn’t like Ghost of having poor taste in music. It either appeals or it doesn’t. It happens to appeal to me, and not just because of the schtick (though as I tried to explain, the schtick is an inseparable part of that appeal).

    • What I find interesting is that I find the schtik mostly a put off from the band, makes me far less likely to recommend them to others because it is stupid.

      Meanwhile I find their music is asbolutely phenomenal at times. My best description is old school heavy, well written riffs and great singing. Surely they have weak moments, I feel like most lose interest due to their singing/poppy moments but I do not mind it.

  4. Well written piece. I will admit, their sudden rocket to superstardom does rub me the wrong way. I really liked the first album and enjoyed seeing them at MDF for their first US appearance. Heck, I even bought the T-shirt.

    BUT, this album reeks of “lets appeal to the masses” and worrying about the expectations, which wasn’t an issue previously.

    Ritual straddled the line of catchy fun, gimmicky metal that WORKED. They needed to go slightly heavier and darker this album for them to maintain legitimacy, something which they did not do. They went even more “poppy”. I want my metal with at least some “edge” to “bite” to it.

    I’ve only heard the 4 songs that were released prior to the album coming out, but they were all boring rubbish devoid of any cool riffs or guitar.

    • I had the unusual experience of hearing parts of this album for the first time during that live show in Seattle 3 nights ago. Before then, I had only heard “Year Zero” and “Secular Haze”. It was actually that show which convinced me I needed to listen to the whole album and write this piece. Performed live, all the new songs came off heavier than they do on the album, with more beef in the low end and a bit more crunch in the rhythm guitar. After hearing the album, I did find myself wishing for more of that heaviness. Also, as noted in the post, seeing the band perform the new songs did affect how I then responded to the album experience.

  5. While I still have no use for Ghost’s music as recorded, I really enjoyed their live show when I saw them open for Mastodon and Opeth. I think Islander nailed it in his response to kevinp: there’s a heaviness to the live performance that is sorely missing from the album versions. It’s a deal-breaker for me. Even my favorite from their live show that night, “Satan Prayer”, was agonizingly boring when I went back later to check it out.

    It’s definitely not that music has to be heavy for me – my taste in metal is practically pop music compared to what NCS typically extols – it’s just that THIS music is not as heavy as it should be. It’s toothless and bland to my ears.

    Aside:
    I still love their cover of “Here Comes the Sun”. That’s the only Ghost song I have on my iPod.

    • It’s toothless and bland

      well said. I need to hear that on record, otherwise I sour on a band, regardless of the live experience. There is simply no excuse (aside from commercialization) for this occuring

  6. Very nice article, and I agree with it pretty much entirely. I would still enjoy the music without the stage presence, but all the theatricality is fun in addition to the tunes.

    I haven’t seen Ghost perform anything from the new album, but I felt the same way about the heaviness of the music when I saw them touring behind Opus Eponymous. The music does sound heavier and more menacing live than on record, and it was cool to hear that different slant to it.

    As for Infestissumam, I think it is different enough from the debut to bother some people, but I am not one of them. I feel like they just took an element of their sound that was there to begin with and explored it more. To me, Opus is a metal record and Infestissumam is more like psychedelic rock/pop with some metal tinges, but dammit I think both of them rule.

  7. I didn’t get into Opus Eponymous, but I love Infestissumam. I also loved Blue Oyster Cult in my younger days and this scratches the same itch as songs like “Joan Crawford” and “Fire of Unknown Origin”.

    It’s one of those rare cases where I find the shtick enhances the music and vice versa. The opening of “Year Zero” would be considerably less awesome if they weren’t singing “Belial, Behemoth, Beelzebub, Asmodeus, Satanas, Lucifer”. And the choral ending of “Monstrance Clock” would be saccharine if the lyrics weren’t “Come together, together as one \ Come together for Lucifer’s son”.

    I think anyone judging this as metal is going to be disappointed. It’s a lush, theatrical, cheerfully demonic rock opera. The Rosemary’s Baby of rock and roll albums.

  8. it took a long time for Opus to win me over, but eventually i gave in and loved it. I’m not completely digging Infestissumam, yet. i’m really partial to the “stripped down” sound of Opus, with the guitars more prominent in the mix. but i suspect a few more listens will get me hooked..

  9. Some days I am in the mood for a nice aged cheddar. Other days, I could just kick back on the couch with a can of Easy Cheese.

    I think you get where I’m going with this metaphor.

    • Why yes, yes I believe I do. For the record, I have never eaten Easy Cheese, though I hear it tastes like a big block of Cheddar had a bad case of diarrhea, which was then poured into a can, and then pressurized for your convenience. True?

  10. I don’t recall ever listening to any Ghost, may just have to do it to see what all the fuss is about. And also, I’ll listen to them just because that artwork is so damned awesome – that’s a good reason to listen to music, isn’t it?

  11. you wrote; “…adds an extra layer of occult devotion to what’s already there for all to hear in the lyrics.”
    evilness is more “affordable” than ever…. no need for war throats nor noisy “badass” music….

    the world knows about satanic pop rock stars, hip-hop, new age, etc. thanks to the “illuminati” celebrities…. they love to veil everything, masking a pledge for Lucifer as a romantic love song,… just for the fancy stupid rich kids, or those whose dream is to become “like diamonds in the sky”… to those of us, who have gone further, we know to read between the lines…. Ghost is the perfect mix between easy listen and the so called satanism.
    SATANISM IS NOW AT HAND OF EVERYONE, ANYWHERE.

  12. has mr Zbigniew Bielak any official page or something? the artwork is just INCREDIBLE!

  13. Are you people fucking stupid? Omg their getting big so their not underground anymore wah wah wah who gives a shit they say themselves they are trying to be a big time band with big time shows obviously their not going to stay underground if they want to accomplish what other bands like slipknot have done with the masks and theatrical stage shows and if you don’t think this is metal than u obviously have no clue what metal is metal doesn’t have to blow ur fucking eardrums out the second u put a CD in metal stands for more than just screaming and heavy riffs that’s like saying ozzy isnt metal because he sings I’m sure he’d punch u in the face for saying some shit like that and let’s face it your opinions really don’t mean shit compared to James hetfield and he fully endorses ghost! Metallica and pantera both say that ghost is metal lol so ur disagreeing with metal legends buddy.

  14. I just don’t get those fans who automatically associate success with a group no longer being a good band. I’ve never understood it. Ever. I feel like an idiot if I’m the only guy telling folks how good someone is after they’ve already heard their music for themselves, and have came away with the opinion that they suck mule dick.

    As far as what Ghost’s real intent with their “in-your-face Satanism” themes…? Who knows? They’ve been all over the map with that one. The most revealing insight into that aspect came when Tobias was detailing the process of creating Ghost as a theatrical experience in the very beginning. He said along the lines of:
    “After sketching out what it should look like onstage—because everything that came afterwards for Ghost came from the initial idea of just wanting to have a very dark, scary, gruesome aesthetic—we began tossing ideas around of a zombie priest… Then it was, ‘No! How about a pope?!’ Yeah, yeah, a pope… What kind of pope?… A witch doctor!… Yeah, yeah, that’s great’

    “Finally we realized in order to do this right, we are nowhere near ready for this yet. Beyond just making the characters and costumes, we’d need to spend at least a year or two refining the type of music they’d make. LIKE, WHAT KIND OF MUSIC AND LYRICS WOULD A SATANIC BAND WRITE? WE WOULD NEED TO RESEARCH THIS TYPE OF STUFF.”

    That brief little insight into their state of mind when developing Ghost answers that question once and for all. No one who truly are devil worshippers would need to research the practice itself. It’s possible, I suppose, that they became so enamored with it they somehow converted to it; although I find this very unlikely.

    Tobias has also said good things about Pope Francis before when asked about his thoughts on Philadelphia rescheduling Ghost’s concert for the Pope’s mass that was to be held in the same venue. Later, in a different interview, he was asked what he thought of Rolling Stone magazine putting Pope Francis on the cover of a secular rock and roll magazine. Again, he had good things to say and considered Francis a refreshing leader. No true Satanist would ever speak in such glowing terms about the Pontiff of the Catholic Church. It’s literally sacrilegious for to them to do so.

    Over the years, throughout different interviews and press conferences, he’s been asked about what surprised them most about the US audiences compared to their native Scandinavian base. As expected, his response was how controversial their act is in the US, and just how much religion still means to people here. To him, being from Sweden, which is a very Socialist (thus, atheist) nation, it’s just understood right away that any outward critiques on religion are never actually interpreted as a commentary on religion— it’s just a part of the broader artistic expression on the state of human society. It’s more of a mindset that says, “How could anyone possibly be offended by this when there’s no such thing as a god or devil in the first place?!” Again, that’s not a very American reaction since there are in fact many rockers & metal performers who are privately religious themselves.

    It’s all viewed as simply being “art” over there. Whereas in America, there’s a different mentality. Americans, generally speaking, simply want their writers to be writers; their directors to be directors; musicians to be musicians, etc. Americans don’t like artistic statements from their musicians as much as they just want their musicians to give us their best in an effort to size up how good they are, in the spirit of competition, to determine their talent & greatness. More than anything else, Americans of all religious backgrounds just want to worship and be in awe of someone with immense talent and greatness in any given field. Anything outside of that, who is seeking to make a broader artistic statement, is usually construed as someone standing on a stage in a mask preaching to us about how wrong we are on a given topic. Which leads us to the equally important American tradition of people wanting their idols to be genuine, and hiding behind a costume right away builds distrust, whereas in other parts of the world those people are viewed as practicing a life of selflessness in order to be better artists.

    The bottom line with Ghost is that everything seems to have simply sprang from the desire to fit a certain horror aesthetic, with everything that came afterwards simply being elements manufactured to better support it. With the above mentioned ideas of sincerity, pure displays of talent, and the distrust of anyone trying to use their music to address very complex aspects of the human psyche, it’s easy to see why Ghost can rub people the wrong way just by choosing to exist in the first place.

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