Pop Goes The Devil

ghost

Ghost’s Infestissumam is the perfect blend of pop/rock influences. 

I remember the summer going into eighth grade, where I was already a diehard Metallica, Megadeth and Aerosmith fan. It was the summer of 1999 and friends of mine were starting to get internet access in their homes. One Friday night, a bunch of us went over to our buddy Dustin’s house because he had just gotten wired. He showed us a program where we could get any song we wanted at the click of a button. Yeah, it took a long time to download just one song, but we didn’t have to buy anything. It was called Napster. It changed my life.

One of my friends who was over that night, Garrett, had a dad with an extensive record collection. Garrett started telling us bands to put into Napster. The first one was The Doors. The very first song we downloaded that night was “Riders on the Storm”. It was like nothing I had ever heard. I wanted to know more, listen more and absorb all I could. Until my own family got the net, I would go over to Dustin’s place and immediately rush to his computer to download whatever was tagged with “classic rock”. That’s when I found the Beatles.

My first foray into Beatles territory was with Rubber Soul, and then into their early catalog. I listened to a few White Album tracks that I couldn’t really get into. Then I came across Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Me and my high as a kite friends first took it as awesome stoner buffoonery, but after a few listens I, for the first time in my life, started to listen to music with a critical ear. I started to understand the concepts and break into the mindsets of the songwriters. I anticipated song structures. By the last track, I had an experience with the music that felt like touching the hand of God.

At the time, I had no preconceived notions about who the Beatles were or what they meant. I simply listened. After running through their discography, I was able to pick up on the evolution of their sound and understand that Sgt. Pepper was a huge shift not only within their own music, but on the entire scene of pop and rock at the time. It was long heralded as their masterpiece, but after a while was supplanted by the White Album, Revolver or Rubber Soul as their grand achievement. Sgt. Pepper is seen now as an album that was too sporadic, too indulgent and not musically proficient enough to be regarded as the best the Fab Four ever put out. But this revision is misguided. What that album did was open the door for music listeners everywhere into new forms of music, different takes on what pop music could be, and a blueprint for having a concept that was joined by standalone pieces of art. No song on it will hit you like “Something” or “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” does, but upon first hearing it – when nothing you have ever heard until then was willing to take those type of risks – you come away with a grander sense of what limitless possibilities lie within the world of rock music.

Now let’s talk about Satan.

As is rare nowadays, I went into listening to the band Ghost (or Ghost B.C., as is their American moniker) with zero idea what they were about. All I knew was they were an up and coming rock band. Then I learned their lead singer dressed like a Satanic pope and they hailed from Sweden. I immediately thought, “Yay, yet another black metal band from Northern Europe. I’m sure this will sound like every ‘RAWWWWRRRRRR’ band in black makeup before them.” I listened to most of their debut album, Opus Eponymous, and found it to be better than average doom rock that came with an Alice Cooper stage show. Better than most shit out there, but nothing worth my attention. In the months that followed their next record, 2013’s Infestissumam, kept gaining notoriety more and more about how insane the band had gotten. I figured I’d give it a fresh shot. I’ve been waiting for something new to come along anyway, let’s see if these cartoons can at least play.

Infestissumam starts off with a chorus singing base-level Satanic Latin that is probably enough to drive most people away. But if you remember, Sgt. Pepper started with a fake concert of a fake band with fake laughter and cheering. If fierce relatability is your main goal in music listening, I’m sure you think the latter album is too juvenile for your tastes. Though, when Sgt. Pepper was released, the dark debut from The Doors was already on shelves and the surreal debut from Pink Floyd was about to hit eardums. It’s not like Sgt. Pepper was groundbreaking because nobody was hitting harder, darker, stranger or with more musical acumen. No, what made that album stand out was that every song stood out. The first three tracks went from concert daydream to sing-a-long about friendship to an LSP trip. The Beatles were pop, and pop was going places that pop wasn’t supposed to go. The LSD trip of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” turned right back into the radio-friendly “Getting Better”, moving on to a musically shifting “She’s Leaving Home” before getting right back into a drug haze of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”. Next came the Indian-infused “Within You Without You”, turning to the poppiest of all songs “When I’m 64”. You see where I’m going with this. Sgt. Pepper swam across harsh musical currents with the ease of a child in a backyard inflatable swimming pool. The Beatles were absorbing everything the mid-1960s had to offer and created their own interpretations within a scope of concentrated Beatlemania that never stroked too far or too close the shore. It stayed just out of reach, letting you touch your toes onto the known land of the mainstream or push further away into the mystics of drugs and foreign influence if you would so choose.

So that’s what we have here with Ghost. The title track is Gregorian chanting that is nothing new in the anti-Christian rock scene. This is the intro, a guide into what the overall theme of the album will be about (notice that Sgt. Pepper starts off the same way). What is noticeably different is Infestissumam is much more a “concept” record; Sgt. Pepper was only a concept due to the return of the concert theme at the end of the album, and that it was a first of its kind. There is no such subtlety here. The lyrics spout a more coherent story in the way The Wall or Tommy once did.

Infestissumam begins the way you would think these ghoulish rockers would. But things change quickly with the third track, “Secular Haze”. The song starts with a carnival-like tune (“Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” anyone?) and turns into a sinister, mad ring leader opus portraying the cries of Satan worshippers awaiting their dark lord’s presence. It’s not the straight-on doom metal you want. Instead, a circular, somewhat romantic melody with a wailing bass riff spins your head around with a merry-go-round whiplash of Satanic pining.

Next comes Jigolo Har Megiddo, which is reminiscent of Dookie-era Green Day hooks with a less need to feel punk than to wash you over with dream-like wistfulness. Halfway through, bygone keyboards return the circus sound and the rhythm section bumps once again, giving the album some cohesiveness. It’s spooky, but it’s catchy.

Things stop, as “Ghuleh / Zombie Queen” brings it down with a simple piano and demonic whisperings. With lyrics that would scare less, this song could be any neo-alt band’s B-side hit. It’s pretty and reserved. Only that intermittent Latin reminds you of the hell Ghost is slowly brining you into. 80’s synth comes in to ease your worries. Then….BAM! A Munsters-style riff and hard drum beat come in to shift things into gear without warning, culminating with a chorus chant of “Zombie Queen!” It had sucked you in, relinquished all your fears, until the “marble white” skin of the Zombie Queen blinds you just as quickly as the benign instrumentals of the first half the song. It is quite effective, with many different musical styles taking center stage to make you forget what the real purpose of this record is all about.

What comes next is the money shot. I have not heard such a powerful song since Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People”.

“Year Zero” starts with a chant of the following titles of the devil: “Belial, Behemoth, Beelzebub, Asmodeus, Satanas, Lucifer.” It is the rise of the Satanists, with the lyrics sung in a sinister cheer, leading up to a rising melody that ultimately builds with “Hail Satan!” A nearly disco drum continues the beginning chant and verses, as industrial-era effects hide in the background. Before the verses can even end, the chorus comes back abruptly cutting off the last few words: “Hail Satan!” The song then breaks down into a familiar doom-metal downward spiral before it returns to the message: “Hail Satan!” A guitar solo follows over chanting that seduces you into finally giving yourself in. Then, the song goes into vinyl-over-radio static silence. Not yet, Ghost is telling us. We’re not done here.

Violin-picking intros “Body and Blood”, a song sung from the point of view of unknowing Christians during the Satanic Revolution. It is a childlike, very pop-friendly tune that reflects the ignorance of Christ-believing listeners of innocent music while the winners of dangerous rock are building a temple to Satan. Here, the music reflects the personality of the narrator, a brilliant display of chameleonism from the band.

I won’t go further into the next tracks, only to say they weave in and out from the dark circus to an even more direct punch to the status quo, only to end with the clock striking on Christianity as the chants return to welcome the beginning of the Age of the Devil. Year Zero has begun.

For a Swedish rock band with Satanic themes, it’s not easy removing oneself from the known entities of black metal and instrumental atmospheres to dish out a pop-rock record. But Infestissumam has it all: pop, rock, metal, new wave, alternative, classical. Ghost is able to meld them all together, not as one, but as needed pieces within a strain of thematic lessons that stand against the values of current popular rock music. Much like how Sgt. Pepper infused influences to show a growing and conflicted counter-culture that there is a lot more to music than having moppy hair, Ghost has abandoned hard rock conventions and at the same time embraced the needed secularism that has been growing in European music for some time.

Infestissumam is not a perfect album. It needed a more pointed direction at times and a higher concentration on style. However, much like the Beatle’s first mind-bending record, Infestissumam is not an end point, it is the crossroad at which the band has decided to do something more interesting and original than playing power chords and singing about the devil. This album is the start of Ghost going places. I can only hope that their White Album is coming up next, because that’s the record rock music has been missing. If they can hone it in and perfect the vision, I will be the first one at their mass.

 

– JFish

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