Some of the best musical theater of the last 40 years has come straight out of hard rock and heavy-metal concerts: King Diamond’s ghoulish presence and operatic vocals; W.A.S.P.’s meat-pelting and models-on-torture-racks spectacle; and, of course, Alice Cooper’s death at the end of every show. Sure, there are plenty of earnest, plain-clothes metal bands that rely on musical performance over high drama, but to some degree, metal has always been about escapism. And no band in recent memory has embodied metal’s escapist tendencies better than Sweden’s Ghost.
Following a performance by neofolk singer / songwriter King Dude—which I missed due to a painfully slow-moving line to enter House of Blues—the masked, robed and nameless ghouls of Ghost took the stage Saturday night like a group of evil monks. Against a canvas backdrop made to resemble stained glass, the musicians quickly transitioned from casting an ominous image to just plain rocking the fuck out, soaring into a high-energy performance of the instrumental title track from their latest album, 2013’s Infestissumam.
And then, Papa Emeritus entered. The charismatic frontman of Ghost, Emeritus is—just like the rest of the band—a mysterious figure, draped in papal vestments, his face obscured by corpse paint. He’s like a sinister pope, basically, and even once campaigned to be pope, before the conclave decided to go with Francis. And when he slowly strolled to center stage, holding his scepter with his left hand and hoisting up his leather-gloved right hand, that’s when the fun really began.
For as much theatrical mayhem and Satanic mischief as Ghost creates through their elaborate image, they’re basically a great rock 'n’ roll band. Certainly, through songs like “Ritual,” “Year Zero” and “Ghouleh / Zombie Queen,” they evoke the classic heavy-metal sound of Denmark’s Mercyful Fate. But just as often, Ghost displayed a keen knack for pop hooks through standout tracks like “Stand By Him,” which owes more to the hard-rock swagger of Blue Oyster Cult—though my wife noted that the song actually sounded a little like Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” (which actually isn’t that far off).
Deeper into the set, it grew increasingly obvious just how much fun the band seemed to be having, despite how sweaty they must have been under their heavy robes. At one point, Emeritus even gave a bit of a tell that there was a lighthearted regular Joe underneath the face paint, as he noticed someone’s young child near the front row (not the only one, I might add).
“There is a small child here tonight,” Emeritus said, looking both caught off guard and pleasantly surprised. “Please—take care of the little one.” From there, the group brought out a pair of nuns (“Sisters of sin,” they called them) to offer communion to the audience during “Body and Blood”; added an extra dose of doom to The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun”; and shone a spotlight in the subtle humor in being a band of nameless musicians by having Emeritus introduce each musician with nothing but wordless gestures and light displays.
It’s refreshing, given how seriously some corners of the metal world take themselves, to see a band give itself so willingly to spectacle and kitsch. If there’s one thing that Ghost delivers in more plentiful amounts than many of their peers, it’s fun.