“The Middle Ages begin now.” Thus, with these words, Papa Nihil, the seemingly first of the line Emeritus, predecessor of Papas Emeritus I, II, and III, ended the reign of Papa Emeritus III and ushered in the new age of Ghost, the Satanic brainchild of Tobias Forge, and the band that every humorless metalhead loves to hate. Ghost removed Papa III from his place as ghoulish frontman and prepared the band, and the world, for their newest phonographic recording with the band now fronted by the suave, svelte, and devilishly sexy Cardinal Copia, a mustachioed young neophyte who has broken the reign of Emeritus and has been placed in charge of introducing the world to Ghost’s 4th LP, Prequelle, out now on Loma Vista Recordings.
Let’s get this out of the way, immediately. Prequelle is not going to win over Ghost’s fervent and petty haters, and it is in no way concerned in doing any such thing. True to form, Ghost has leaned hellishly hard into its 80’s rock roots, and, while Prequelle has a few hard rock/metal moments, the focus is razor sharp in creating a slick, well-produced rock album that takes its influences beyond Satanic metal and Blue Oyster Cult, and brazenly channels everything from 80’s goth rock, prog rock, and even bands like The Eurythmics, Yes, and ABBA. Some metal fans may be disappointed by the lack of any really heavy metal material on the album, but Ghost still rocks, can still crank out some good metal tunes.
Prequelle concerns itself thematically with the aforementioned Middle Ages, drawing in themes of the Bubonic Plague and the fallout it caused throughout Europe, and uses these themes to explore betrayal, loyalty, and the coming apocalypse. It’s hard not to draw parallels to much of the subject matter between Tobias Forge and his past bandmates, but this is not at the forefront of the album, nor should it be. The opener, “Ashes,” sets Prequelle’s macabre tone, with children singing the nursery rhyme “Ring a Ring o’ Roses,” the folksong that, if urban legend is to be believed, describes the Black Death. The children’s light voices are immediately followed by a crash of guitars and dark tinkling of piano keys, and this song leads right in to “Rats,” Prequelle’s first single and one of the the album’s strongest tracks. “Now all your loved ones/And all your kin/Will suffer punishments beneath the wrath of God,” warns Copia, and, while the message is ominous, it’s hard to keep from banging your fists and singing along to the wonderfully contagious chorus of “Them rats! (Aaah whooah-ooh).”
“Faith” is next, and may very well be the hardest rocking track of the album, with crushing riffs mixed devilishly with the sounds of howling wind and the Cardinal’s claiming “Faith is mine!” before some truly impressive guitar work follows. Another example of the wonderfully slick production, which should come as no surprise as Ghost are, hilariously and awesomely, Grammy-award winners, “Faith” is a gleeful example of everything that makes Ghost the fucking badass band that they are: expert musicianship, sharp, Satanic lyrics, and a touch of ghost-house aesthetic, cemented in some ghoulishly wonderful laughter from Cardinal Copia (or is it Papa Nihil?).
“See The Light” slows the album down, just a bit, and may be the most overt message to Forge’s past bandmates and the ongoing legal battles that Ghost currently faces. “Many a rat I’ve befriended, “ croons Forge-as-Copia, either to the literal plague bringing rats of Europe, of the figurative “rats” in Forge’s life, before invoking Holy Communion in the songs chorus, aided by some truly impressive synth work courtesy of Zombi’s Steve Moore. The ungodly meld of genres continues with the instrumental “Miasma,” which brings the prog metal sounds front and center, with keytar (YES FUCKING KEYTAR) solos and a wonderfully subversive saxophone solo courtesy of Papa Nihil himself, which was hilariously alluded to in one of Ghost’s pre-Prequelle videos, and is being performed live, courtesy of the aging Papa Zero, on Ghost’s Rats! On The Road tour. If “Miasma” doesn’t make you laugh, shake your head, and throw devil horns all at once, Ghost is simply not the band for you.
“Danse Macabre” wears Ghost’s 80’s pop and metal influences proudly on its vestment sleeves, and, as Ghost has covered many an 80’s band in its Satanic past, this should really be no shock to anyone’s system. “I wanna bewitch you in the moonlight,” sings Copia in what may very well be Ghost’s most catchy and mainstream-accessible track in its discography, and would have easily been a staple in any pop/Goth club three decades ago, and, as it stands, is a no-holds-barred banger. “Pro Memoria” is another slower, deliberately paced track that starts with a, dare I say, heavenly opening, before Cardinal Copia ominously warns “Don’t you forget about dying/Don’t you forget about your friend Death,” in yet another strong, well-produced track. Anyone who fears that Ghost has lost is Satanic edge need not worry; Lucifer is still strong inside of Prequelle, but sometimes the package in which the Unholy Message is delivered is more “November Rain” than “South of Heaven.”
“Witch Image” bring Ghost’s harder sound back into the album before wallowing right back in the 80’s pop and arena rock sensibilities with some wickedly wonderful lyrics, embodied most strongly with the words “While you sleep in Earthly delight, someone’s flesh is rotting tonight.” Where else has the morbid and relentless march of Death been so fucking catchy? The album continues with another instrumental, “Helvetesfönster,” a nearly pastoral piece of work whose name is literally translated into “Hell window,” the “side cleavage” of dresses in the Middle Ages, and a source of sinful damnation for many an English lad. While the thought of a medieval, floral instrumental may seem out of place, the piece slowly builds with drums and guitars, moving its mood from tranquil and serene to something foreboding and laced with hidden evil. The albums last track (ignoring two wonderful covers, The Pet Shop Boys “It’s a Sin” and Leonard Cohen’s “Avalanche”), is “Life Eternal,” an unapologetic power ballad that seemed tailor-made for any rock arena in the mid-1980’s… Motley Crüe and YES would have been jealous to be competing with this track years ago, and the angelic (demonic?) chorus echoing of “forever” would have been accompanied by the flames of countless lighters rather than the glow of smartphones just decades ago.
No, Prequelle will not win over any of Ghosts haters, nor should it. Forge and company have crafted an immensely powerful and well-produced album, that is as much rock ’n’ roll genius as it is rock opera; Ghost’s theatricality has never been this overt or evident, nor has the band’s ability to create some genuinely kickass songs. It’s a damn shame that Ghost gets as much hate as it does, because those who damn the band’s mix of Luciferian kitsch and pop/Goth/rock sensibilities are missing some really high-quality songwriting and a handful of wonderfully Satanic albums. While it’s unclear if Cardinal Copia will prove himself, as Forge says, and earn the skull paint of Emeritus that many Ghost fans miss, it is crystal clear that Ghost’s newest incarnation, both with its dance-prone Cardinal and its roster of truly amazing Nameless Ghouls, are at the absolute pinnacle of their career, and any fan of absolutely amazing music should be proud to find themselves in Ghost’s pit. Ave Satanas, Ave Cardinal Copia.