(Loma Vista Recordings, 2015)
Ghost. noun). The soul of a dead person, a disembodied spirit imagined, usually as a vague, or evanescent form, as wandering among or haunting living persons.
It’s hard for me to imagine a band with a more appropriate moniker than Ghost. This is a collection of musicians ambiguous and amorphous, who perform music that is as enigmatic as they are. Who are Ghost, exactly, and what are they really trying to achieve anyway?
These puzzling questions first entered my mind back in April, 2012, when I caught the Opeth show in Grand Rapids, Michigan (yes, Mastodon was also co-headliner on the bill, but as I left before they started playing, I barely consider it relevant to mention this). The line for this sold-out show stretched for blocks, so by the time my brother and I finally entered the back of the hall, the opening act’s set was almost over. Stretching on my tip-toes to see over the heads of the scores of tall metalheads in front of me, I witnessed vague, strange images onstage: several black-cloaked musicians with their faces completely obscured by hoods, and a bizarre, robed frontman wearing some sort of silver papal tiara with an inverted cross on the front of it. I heard sounds that seemed to contradict these foreboding visuals, music that was melodic and pleasant if not so heavy or energetic. “Hmm,” I thought. Then their set ended after a song-and a-half, and that was that. Or so it seemed.
Before I venture further, I should recognize the fact that Ghost are a pretty successful band these days. Heck, I’m willing to bet that the mysterious Swedish sextet are the first Grammy winners to grace this space. Relative to the scores and scores of outstanding underground metal bands featured on this site, Ghost can be considered downright mainstream. I realize that reviewing Ghost here might be confusing to the regular TML reader when information about this band can easily be found elsewhere. My reasoning for reviewing Ghost’s latest album, Meliora, is this: Ghost, Grammy-winner or not, plays a unique and enjoyable style of melodic metal that should appeal to fans of many underground sub-genres. Ghost may be difficult to categorize, but I believe strongly that their music is sufficiently old-school enough to feature here. Also, it is pretty darn good.
Have I mentioned that Ghost’s music is hard to categorize? Let me say it again: Ghost is a bear to describe accurately, let alone try to compartmentalize into a genre label. As a fellow musician, I feel that this sort of originality is a blessing; as a writer, it’s a challenge, to say the least. To summarize their style somewhat succinctly, Ghost combine elements of ‘80s melodic metal, such as more mid-tempo Judas Priest or Saxon, with ‘70s hard rock such as Deep Purple and Blue Oyster Cult, prog, and even a bit of psychedelic thrown in their musical blender. Much like Irish legends Thin Lizzy, Ghost’s music toes that nebulous line between genres. It can be a frustrating situation in which the band is often considered too light for the hardcore metalheads, and too dark and heavy for the pop-rock fans. People seem to either get a band like Ghost, or they don’t. That’s okay, and undoubtedly what Papa Emeritus III and his stoic bunch of Nameless Ghouls prefer.
I, for one, like Meliora. It’s a solid, if not perfect, mainstream metal album. Its heights, most notably the infectious hit single, “Cirice,” are staggering. This is the brilliant song that finally sold me on the Ghost mojo three albums into their career. Just as the Nameless Ghouls are named after the five earthly elements, all the musical elements align perfectly on “Cirice.” The moody and dynamic tune begins with clean-guitar arpeggios, and gradually adds smooth layers of big guitar chords and synths. Its verse riff features a march-like beat and crunchy guitar groove, but it’s the ultra-catchy chorus where the song truly shines. As Emeritus III plaintively sings, “I can hear the rumble,” the helpless listener is hooked, lined, and sunk by Ghost’s lethal ear worm. This amazing song continues with fantastic counter-melodies, tasty and melodic guitar solos in the interlude, a synth solo, and a church-organ lick straight from the catacombs of this evil sanctuary.
Generally speaking, Meliora’s heavier tracks are its best. The heavily-accented main groove of “From the Pinnacle to the Pit” morphs into a typically uplifting and layered chorus, while “Mummy Dust” features a driving, palm-muted guitar riff and neo-classical keyboard solos. The fantastic “Absolution” perfectly contrasts a sinister, Sabbathy opening riff and galloping verse riff with a grandiose chorus, not unlike a satanic spiritualist revival. Opening track “Spirit” is a strong showcase of Ghost’s disparate variety show, and the mellow, almost jig-like “He Is” is catchy in a new-age pop sort of way.
Again, Meliora is not a flawless record. Its two brief instrumental tracks, “Spoksonat” and “Devil Church,” are pleasant enough, but two more full-length songs would have better served the album. Closer “Deus in Absentia,” while ambitious and musically sound, borders on cheese with its bombastic vocal layering and overwrought histrionics. Also, I can’t help but wish that the band would employ heavier and more aggressive guitar riffs more consistently. That’s the crusty metalhead in me griping, though the musician in me always applauds Ghost’s unique artistic vision.
The bottom line: go ahead and buy Meliora, if you haven’t already. It’s an intriguing ride, and it’s got my vote for Best Song of 2015 in “Cirice.” That’s more than enough for me.
Review by Jonathan Kollnot