Unmasked in 2017 as Ghost’s mastermind, Tobias Forge trades in his papal regalia for a new persona on a darkly comic album that is lots of fun despite its flaws.
Call it the Daft Punk Principle: No matter how far they go to keep their true identities under wraps, a band of pseudonymous alter egos will eventually get unmasked—by the press, by their fans, or even by their own volition. So it has gone with Ghost. The Swedish rockers’ Catholic-inspired cosplay shtick finally unraveled in the courts last year, amid a royalties dispute between the group’s zombie-pope figurehead, Papa Emeritus (né Tobias Forge), and his band of chrome-masked sidemen, known as “Nameless Ghouls.” The biggest bombshell fell out of court, when Forge revealed to Radio Metal that he and the Ghouls had never been a group in the traditional sense. He went on to compare Ghost to pioneering black-metal act Bathory, who performed as a band but were essentially a solo outlet for multi-instrumentalist Tomas Börje “Quorthon” Forsberg.
His identity as Ghost’s architect revealed, Forge stood at the same crossroads where Kiss once found themselves. Would he stick to the outlandish personas and sepulchral faux communions for which he was known? Or would he prioritize songwriting over theatrics, ditching his papal roleplaying for a more straightforward sacrament? On Ghost’s explosive fourth album, Prequelle, the Swede straddles both paths, spiking the band’s old ornate style with youthful vigor.
Rather than reprising his role as Papa Emeritus, Forge has stepped into the Sunday shoes of one Cardinal Copia, a sprightly, pale-faced clergyman who rolls his R’s like Spanish royalty and carries a boombox wherever he goes. His gleeful, “Thriller”-esque choreography in the music video for “Rats,” Prequelle’s fist-pumping first single, epitomizes the record and the paradigm shift it heralds: As Forge pirouettes his way through the burning, rodent-infested streets like a vampiric Gene Kelly, Ghost’s old solemnity fades away, revealing an easily accessible dark comedy that proves immensely fun despite its flaws.
A concept album loosely centered around the Black Plague, Prequelle bridges the classic rock of Ghost’s most recent full-length—2015’s Grammy-winning Meliora—and the disco flirtations of 2016’s Popestar, an EP of covers that reinterpreted non-metal songs by Eurythmics, Echo and the Bunnymen, and more. But the second style predominates, with producer Tom Dalgety shoving proggy keyboard lines to the fore on songs like the ELO-tinged instrumental “Miasma” and “Pro Memoria,” a soaring reflection on mortality undercut by some of Ghost’s laziest lyrics to date (“Don’t you forget about dying/Don’t you forget about your friend death/Don’t you forget that you will die”). With its ham-fisted wordplay (“I wanna be/Wanna bewitch you in the moonlight,” goes the chorus) and four-on-the-floor rhythms, the album’s ABBA-worshiping centerpiece “Dance Macabre” is even goofy by Ghost’s standards—but it’s damn hard not to nod along with it.
Prequelle is not entirely devoid of raw power. “Rats” and “Witch Image” get their strength from smoldering licks and stacked harmonies plucked from the Ozzy Osbourne playbook, providing metalheads with a welcome break from all the mid-tempo durdling. Given the unremarkable tracks that follow it—particularly “Helvetesfönster,” an ostentatious, baroque instrumental reminiscent of Medieval Times muzak—the latter might as well be the record’s closer.
The real keeper, though, is “Faith,” a glam-rock stomper engineered for maximum impact, from the interwoven vocal arrangement (Forge’s demonic growls on the penultimate chorus deserve a shout-out of their own) down to the sidewinding solo. The unmasked Ghost’s revised approaches to dramaturgy and group dynamics don’t always sync on Prequelle, but when they do, the performance is nothing short of showstopping.
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