Move over, Pope Francis, there’s a new pope in town. Sure, Papa Emeritus III’s miter may bear an upside-down cross, and the word “Lucifer” may be intoned onstage with seeming glee, but Ghost’s own front-pope held the Sunday-night masses in thrall with his rock ‘n’ roll benedictions and stately bearing. There was Latin; there was swooning (sweatily, with metal horns thrust aloft); there were men, women, and children of all ages lustily intoning, “Belial, Behemoth, Beelzebub, Asmodeus, Satanas, Lucifer” from the song “Year Zero.”
Are Ghost calculated? Yes. Are they shticky? Yes. Are they good? YES. Listen if you like anthemic, melodic Euro-metal with shades of Marilyn Manson (the intensity of a “Beautiful People”), Queen (grandiose layers of sound), and (the campy vibe of and Paul Williams’s stellar songs from) cult film Phantom of the Paradise. The Swedish-born band — rounded out by “nameless ghouls” on bass, drums, keys, and two guitars — strode onto a stage bathed in bloody red light, then launched into “Spirit,” the first song from their new, third album, Meliora (Latin for the pursuit of something better).
Papa’s singing voice is unexpectedly light, his speaking timbre that of a Swedish-accented Count Dracula, with flashes of Borscht Belt humor (“A lot of cute faces in the crowd tonight,” he said, surveying the packed floor of Terminal 5). Of course, there was pope ‘n’ circumstance: Papa uses a metal (m/) censer to anoint the front rows in (un)holy smoke, incensing the audience, so to speak. Artifice and dramatics aside, Ghost write some great metal-light songs that, while not for everyone, will surely thrill a new (and the old) generation of Kiss and Manson acolytes.
In a 21-song set, Ghost play a few too-mellow tunes — “Here’s a slow one for the ladies,” Papa quipped — even though the ladies (and rest of the crowd) clearly craved the heavier riffs of songs like “Ghuleh/Zombie Queen.” The surprisingly successful “Year Zero” is a dancy gem akin to a goth Duran Duran song; also stunning was their acoustic rendering of “Jigolo Har Megiddo,” an incredibly infectious and bouncily dark ditty, where Papa merrily (and presumably self-referentially) sings of being “the son of the one below,” also noting he’s “the one who preys on weak/I offer everything they seek/And I am the one who comes richly endowed/Harvesting crops of fields that others have plowed/I am the one, lascivious.”
Their dark lyrical mein and dramatic-kitsch stage presence may not scream “serious” to critics, but it’s fully realized, compelling, and matched by serious talent. In fact, Ghost are not entirely dissimilar from the large and prominent Swedish melodic death metal scene, bands like Bathory, especially on songs like the metal/arena rock (with proggy keyboards) anthem “Absolution.” That said, one confused concertgoer — who admitted to going to church that morning — surmised that some in the audience would go home and “read a chapter” after the show. One presumes he wasn’t speaking of the Satanic Bible.
Oddly, they cover a song by cult psychedelic hero Roky Erickson, done less twangily, and fairly faithfully, though the honor is presumably due to the tune’s title: “If You Have Ghosts” (recorded on their 2013 Dave Grohl–produced EP, If You Have Ghost.) Are Ghost the Next. Big. Thing? Well, anointed by Herr Grohl, and three albums into a slow-burning career, it remains to be seen. But they’ve got the songs, the presence, and the smarts — plus, if the endless post-show lines were any indication, an amazing and profitable career as T-shirt merchandisers to fall back on. In this day and age, that’s more than enough.