THE JOURNEY FROM NAMELESS GHOULS TO ROCK’S MOST IN-DEMAND BAND…
Cardinal Copia is in the midst of a gripping sermon. The successor to Papa Emeritus I, II and III – the demonic anti-pope figureheads that fronted Ghost’s first three albums Opus Eponymous, Infestissumam and Meliora respectively – has just led the band through their cover of Roky Erickson’s If You Have Ghosts. He is stood on an almighty altar atop a tiled floor on the Royal Albert Hall’s stage, with a large stained glass window towering behind. He’s dressed in tight-fitting black, but with the many costume changes tonight – including the odd cassock accessorised with a swinging thurible full of incense – it’s difficult to keep tabs. His hair is slicked back like a Hammer Horror vampire, those hollow eyes surveying a congregation of 5,272 devout worshippers.
“Sometimes life is shit,” he purrs in a vaguely Italian accent, his words presumably, in part, a reference to the legal battle with the previous occupiers of the Nameless Ghouls’ cowls – a dispute that sent the mystique behind the Swedish rockers tumbling into the public eye at the end of last year. “But sometimes it is good,” he adds, his voice lilting upwards, a leather-gloved hand motioning to the sight before him. “Tonight is very, very good.”
For a frontman synonymous with grand gestures, when it comes to summarising the quality of this evening, the Cardinal’s words are a woeful understatement. Tonight is nothing short of devilishly incredible, largely because it’s impossible to pick a standout
moment from a set inundated with them. You could argue it’s Year Zero, where stabbing guitars and blood-red lighting collide intoxicatingly. Perhaps it’s Miasma, arguably the band’s most divisive track despite being an instrumental, during which Papa Nihil, the Cardinal’s ancient mentor, is slowly led onstage, only to suddenly unleash that saxophone solo to thunderous cheers. Or there’s the oddly life-affirming spectacle of thousands of people singing along to the lyrics of Pro Memoria, a prime cut from fourth album Prequelle. ‘Don’t you forget about dying/don’t you forget about your friend death/ Don’t you forget that you will die,’ they sing with an abandon suggesting joyful resignation. And don’t forget the moments of humour in between the hymns, an increasingly prevalent element within the Ghost show: the occasionally carnal Cardinal suggesting Mummy Dust has the power to “tickle [our] tits” and “make [our] asses wobble”, or his incredulous reaction to the hysteria caused by the confetti canon during that song (“We throw some worthless shit at you and you all go crazy!”). Even the seemingly lesser moments have a deeper significance. At one point, one of the guitar-playing Nameless Ghouls jokingly peels off the riff to Deep Purple’s Smoke On The Water. As we soon discover, the British hard rock legends played a central role in this show being where it is.
Just as there are innumerable highlights, there are equally as many reasons why this show is so significant. For starters, it’s a new peak for one of rock’s most unlikely, but deserved, success stories. It is also, with the exception of their triumphant headline slot at last year’s Bloodstock festival, the most spectacular representation of the Ghost live show witnessed in the UK so far. Plus, it’s proof the band’s recent dramas have done nothing to impede their steep upwards trajectory. But before all that, and perhaps less widely appreciated, tonight is the vivid realisation of one little boy’s vision. A little boy named Tobias.
On the afternoon of the show, the older Tobias Forge – the man the world now knows to be the mastermind of Ghost – is pacing around an empty Albert Hall dressed in a leather jacket covered in punk badges. On the floor before him, small scraps of confetti and the odd discarded Union Jack flag betray the festivities that were here last night, the Last Night Of The Proms, the climax of an annual eight-week season of classical concerts. K! wonders aloud whether the 37-year-old gets a kick out of putting on something so subversive a mere 24 hours after this great room played host to something so civilised.
“It’s humorous given what goes on here on an everyday basis,” he answers with a laugh. “But I’m not really thinking of it from the perspective of the staining element of my presence.”
Instead, he says, he’s thinking of it from the perspective of his younger self, the fledgling rock fan in his native Sweden with a particular penchant for live albums. “Deep Purple’s live album [1969’s Concerto For Group And Orchestra] was recorded here, which I had an early love for. Even before that I had [1966’s] Got Live If You Want It by The Rolling Stones, which was also recorded here. They weren’t just great performances, they contributed to both bands’ mystiques and their stories, and so I’ve always wanted to play here with Ghost.” This show is part of the band’s A Pale Tour Named Death jaunt, which wowed cities across the U.S. earlier this year, treating audiences to two hours of music with an interval.
“I really like the format,” enthuses Tobias. “Since Ghost was just a figment of my imagination, I’ve always thought of the presentation having more in common with a theatrical show than a head-banging concert, though we’re probably in the grey area between the two.”
Tobias’ dedication to producing a different kind of live experience even extends to seemingly incidental details, such as the intro music – in tonight’s case the choral Miserere Mei, Deus by Gregorio Allegri to open the first half, and the unsettling Masked Ball by Jocelyn Pook for the second.
“That’s to take the four-bar beat out of the audience’s heads,” he explains. “To get them into another mindset. When you see Metallica, beforehand they play [AC/DC’S] It’s A Long Way To The Top, and you know that some fucking heavy shit is coming. I love that, but I wanted Ghost to be different. I wanted Ghost to come onstage to a context where the brain isn’t switched on to rock’n’roll. I’ve therefore been a little against the idea of having opening acts. From an artistic point of view, it’s hard to find bands or artists that add something to the evening – to find an appetiser for a main course that’s so… strange.” For all his tongue-in-cheek pronouncements onstage beneath layers of prosthetics, Tobias is very serious. He’s a man who needs routine, telling us that this isolated show is a little unnerving, as he worries he’ll forget his cues (“If you want to see us at our most efficient, come see us on a Tuesday night 15 dates into a tour.”) And speaking to him about Ghost, you can’t help but get a sense there’s a battle raging in his heart as to his band’s true purpose. As it turns out, these suspicions are correct. “I’m one of those rock’n’roll persons who vainly believes that what I’m doing is more artful than kitsch,” he says with a smile, looking up from where we’re standing on the floor area of one of the UK’S most legendary venues to the chapel of unrest that’s been erected in his name. “I like to say that what I do has a purpose, or that I have a message, or that I draw inspiration from more eclectic music than others, but at the end of the day this is entertainment, there to make people laugh, move, buy beers and have fun. I’m not kidding myself into thinking that what I’m doing is of a higher purpose.”
Towards the end of the evening’s show, there’s a telling moment given the drama in Ghost’s recent past (“the turmoil” as Tobias dubs it). Cardinal Copia takes a moment to introduce the musicians joining him onstage, dedicating a few words to each before spitting the word ‘Ghoul’ – and in the case of the two keyboardists/backing singers/percussionists that are clearly women, ‘The Ghoulettes’. While it’s quite funny – initially at least, though a little trying when there are seven of them – it also feels a rather pointed reminder that there is one man, and one man only, in charge of this enterprise. Given that this is the latest part of Tobias’ long-held artistic vision, did “the turmoil” affect its next stages?
“It did, but in a positive way,” he explained earlier. “Two years ago my long-term plan was going to end in December this year. The album that I had in mind became delayed, but that resulted in me coming up with another idea about where I wanted to take things after [recent album] Prequelle. Two years ago, I thought Prequelle would be a bit of a round off. But there was a complication, and as a result I have another idea now. In terms of planning ahead, I’m thinking four years into the future.”
Despite this forward-thinking, and Tobias’ youthful appearance – he looks like he’s in his twenties – he’s mindful of not wanting Ghost to haunt the listening public for too long.
“I don’t want to do this all the time for the rest of my life,” he explains. “I want to do it when it feels right, when it feels purposeful. I have invested my whole life into Ghost, and I’ve done it pure-heartedly because it’s something I truly love. What I’m doing now is so close to what I dreamed about when I was a little kid. It’s important that I continue doing it because I love it. I love it right now, a lot, and I’m really burning for the ideas that, upon the mercy of the public, I can do for another four years. But I never want to turn into someone who has to do it just because. If I feel it’s a chore or I’m doing it for the wrong reasons, I’ll do something way less complicated, like play bass in a punk band.”
Given that Tobias used to play bass in preghost band Magna Carta Cartel, this change in job would take his career full circle, but it remains to be seen how this story will end. Before tonight’s closing track, Monstrance Clock, Cardinal Copia says to the audience, somewhat lasciviously, “I believe in happy endings. Do you believe in happy endings?” Tobias Forge should, because despite some unexpected twists in the tale of Ghost, he’s well on the way to achieving his.
“GHOST IS SOMETHING I LOVE PURE-HEARTEDLY” TOBIAS FORGE
No, sorry. You can’t have your ball back