Ghost is a band that has quite the recent history. Just a few years ago, Ghost was virtually unknown to a pretty substantial portion of the public, even to many in the music industry. However, those that did know of Ghost were aware how eccentric the whole thing was. For starters, the entire band is based around the idea of an occult church, where the lead singer was the leader (a sort of Antichrist figure), and the band were ghoul followers that served him. Further, this meant that the band members all went by different names than their own, with the lead singer being “Papa Emeritus” and the other band members being “Nameless Ghouls.” The lead singer wears an elaborate outfit modeled after those in the Catholic church, while the Nameless Ghouls would wear completely black clothes with demon masks that went over their entire head. As part of the project, the band members all were unknown to everyone outside the band, so everyone and their positions were kept anonymous. This was the state of things through the band’s first two albums and an EP.
Their first album, Opus Eponymous, saw the band getting massive critical acclaim for their heavy metal style that evoked classic rock bands from the 70’s such as Black Sabbath, Dio, and Iron Maiden. Infestissumam, the band’s second album, split a great deal of their fanbase and critics due to its much lighter vibe, heavy incorporation of psychedelic rock, and general lack of taking itself seriously. The split is understandable from many viewpoints, and speaking personally I find this to be much weaker of an album than it predecessor as well as the album which would come after. This album, Meliora, was the band’s third, and saw the band take off in popularity, both critically and commercially. “Cirice” became a top 10 hit on the Mainstream Rock chart, catapulting them into the spotlight. This was backed up with “Square Hammer” from the Popestar EP (which was shortly after included with Meliora as a deluxe edition of that album), an even bigger hit due to its commercial appeal. A lot of this was due to a slight return to the heaviness of Opus Eponymous, while also going with a mellow vibe that is not corny like Infestissumam but is certainly different from what they had done otherwise. Unfortunately, since this time, the band has found itself at the center of controversy as former members have sued Tobias Forge, who was revealed to be the lead singer of the band as a result of this incident. Because of this, the anonymity at the center of the band’s concept was ruined, though it appears that the former members have legitimate grievances against Forge even though he claims the Ghost project was always more a solo project for him the whole time and that the members suing him had nothing to do with the band’s creation. Regardless, this is all hanging around in the background as Ghost releases it fourth album, Prequelle, but I would like to try and focus more than anything on what the music here is doing than the context of controversy, because I believe the album is not (at least, not intentionally) referencing the incident itself.
While that story is long, I mention all of it because I believe that it helps in understanding what Prequelle is doing to understand what Ghost has done in the past, and recognizing that the recent events with the band outside of the music do not necessarily have an impact on the product we have received, even if it means that Tobias Forge has written this album practically by himself. As for how the band’s history applies, the sound of the music here is an almost perfect encapsulation of each of the three styles the band has done in the past. Conceptually, Prequelle is probably the tightest album the band has released, revolving around Medieval concepts, particularly the Bubonic plague, to focus on issues related to living and dying. The album does a great job of having all these many things come together and still managing to make sense. The opening track is a short intro. with a young girl singing “Ring a Ring o’ Roses,” which supposedly originates from the Black Death.
This leads into “Rats,” the first single from the album, and now one of the biggest hits the band has ever had. And for good reason, this might be the most entertaining and simultaneously one of the smartest songs in the band’s catalog. Here rats are used as symbol for something which is easy to demonize and galvanize people against, and the symbol is utilized very well. “Rats” is also extremely catchy and danceable, making it probably the most fun one of their songs has ever been while still having something dark in the background. The heaviness it manages to bring really harkens back to some of Opus Eponymous, and the best parts of that album at that. Unfortunately, the band’s other single from this album (thus far) is “Dance Macabre,” which is my least favorite song on the record. While “Rats” might have been 80’s rock done with a modern twist that made it interesting, “Dance Macabre” is an 80’s rock ballad that is among the worst songs the band has ever written. It is made slightly better when one realizes they are saying “I want to bewitch you all night” not “I want to be with you all night,” but this cannot get rid of the cheesy melody backing it up and the other lyrics about looking into someones eyes and feeling the sting of a kiss that sound completely at odds with everything else the album has done to this point. It is simply not pleasant to listen to, and I could not wait for it to be done.
In a way, the problem of “Dance Macabre” is the same sort of misunderstanding what Ghost does best that made Infestissumum so problematic. Regardless, I must admit that this same sort of lightheartedness to the music is actually done very well on the next two songs which fully delve into a sort of poppiness and arena rock that is completely different from what Ghost has done in the past, yet works to their advantage here. “Pro Memoria” comes close to going too far with this, but the orchestras at the end and lyrics that are dark but not too serious make the whole thing work out. “Witch Image” also completely gives in to a pop rock sound, but is so fun and interesting with the dark and spooky tones they give it that it manages to be one of the best songs on the album period. Ironically, the instrumental tracks, which have strong progressive rock tendencies, manage to be among the best on the album, and represent a way in which Prequelle stands apart from its predecessors since instrumental Ghost tracks had been largely inconsequential in the past. It is also worth noting how much tracks like “Faith” and “I Saw the Light” have a personal nature and melodic quality that calls back to Meliora.
Really, that is why I wanted to sum up Ghost’s past to talk about their present. Prequelle feels like a less than perfect summation of everything that made them great in the past (even including in “Dance Macabre” a reminder of when they were not quite as great), but enough of its own personality and ideas to stand out. Prequelle is a fun album with few weak points, though I will say the album’s bad points stand out far too much on the track list because of where they fall: “Dance Macabre” comes across as the introduction to the second half and leaves a bad taste going forward, and final track “Life Eternal” which has ultimately seemed very forgettable despite how well it works as a closer. Still, Prequelle’s better moments are amazing and the album seems like it has something for every type of fan without feeling like it is trying to cater to everyone, a perfect balance of commercial and cult appeal. As a result, Prequelle might not be Ghost’s best album, but it is one that easy to like and one I expect quite a few to love.