The rise of Swedish doom-metal sextet GHOST within the rock & metal scene over the last seven years has been nothing short of remarkable to behold. Emerging as an anonymous band of masked and hooded Nameless Ghouls led by ghostly Pope-lookalike Papa Emeritus, the band have gradually ascended from small club shows to the point where they are now recipients of a 2016 Grammy Award, are set to support British metal titans IRON MAIDEN on their upcoming US tour, and have this week been confirmed (somewhat controversially) as one of Bloodstock Festival’s headliners for 2017. We headed down to Birmingham’s O2 Academy to catch them on their Popestar Tour and see whether all the fuss is justified.
At face value, tonight’s sole openers, ZOMBI, are a bizarre prospect. Comprising of bassist/synth player Steve Moore and drummer Anthony Paterra, the Pennsylvania synthwave duo have been around for over 15 years now, but seem somewhat of an unknown to the majority of tonight’s audience. That uncertainty doesn’t seem to last long however, as the pair come out and immediately launch into an almost-relentless 45 minute set that’s part-RUSH, part-vintage horror movie soundtrack, and entirely enthralling. When ZOMBI truly go for it, the result is earth-shakingly heavy bass riffs and thunderous drums amidst a ghoulish soundscape of electronics, but even the lighter moments impress – often sounding like the bastard step-child of 70’s prog’s finest and the soundtrack to The Exorcist, and whilst it may be occasionally difficult to tell where one track ends and another begins, the end result is nothing short of captivating.
It really says a lot about where rock music is at in 2017 that a band like GHOST can pull the kind of crowd they have tonight. Men, women and children of all ages form the crowd for GHOST’s sermon tonight and completely fill the O2 Academy’s main room wall-to-wall. The sense of anticipation is palpable as one-by-one the Nameless Ghouls that make up the band’s instrumentalists take to the stage before a sudden plunge into darkness and back again signals the jump-scare arrival of Papa Emeritus III (clad as expected in Papal robes) and a launch into what may be one of the strongest set-opening songs ever written – Square Hammer. From here on out, it’s just over an hour and a quarter of brilliantly-constructed metal and gleefully tongue-in-cheek occult vibes. That the band are now three albums into their career means there’s something in tonight’s set for everyone – from the fuzz-driven riffing of Con Clavi Con Dio from debut album Opus Eponymous, to the vaudevillian-esque stomp of Secular Haze from sophomore release Infestissumam, to the dramatic pomp of monster ballad He Is from 2016’s Meliora. Onstage, Emeritus himself simply oozes stage presence and sly charisma as he wanders the stage (eventually forgoing the robes in favour of a more comfortable suit look) delivering impassioned vocal lines with apparent ease.
Despite all of the satanic imagery and such that form the basis of their image, there’s an inherent sense of humour present throughout everything GHOST do – from Emeritus’s constant dry jokes in-between songs (including tonight a long-winded monologue comparing one of their tracks to the female orgasm) to the faux-religiousness of their stage backdrop. None of this focus on imagery and performance would matter though if the songs weren’t up to scratch and luckily, every member of the band sounds fantastic tonight. Guitarists Fire and Ether get ample chances to show off their respective skills, whilst the rhythm section of bassist Water and drummer Earth underpin the evening’s proceedings with ridiculously tight precision, and keyboard player Wind adds heapings of sinister and melodic organ and piano sounds on top of everything. It’s truly a sight to behold, and as the band end their main set with fan-favourite Ritual, it’s easy to see why they’re now the band chosen to headline the UK’s Bloodstock Festival in August. Returning once more to cap off the night with a triumphant airing of Monstrance Clock only serves to prove this further as an entire venue bellows it’s ode-to-the-devil chorus at the six figures onstage. An absolute triumph of a performance.
Check out our photo gallery of the night’s action in Birmingham from Sabrina Ramdoyal Photography here: