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Lon­don Royal Al­bert Hall

Classic Rock - - Contents - Words: John Ai­zle­wood Pho­tos: Jake Owens

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For a mo­ment you re­ally do be­lieve that the devil has the best tunes.

The great­est heavy metal pan­tomime on earth. Oh yes it is!

It’s the black­est of Sab­baths at Lon­don’s most church-like ma­jor venue when Ghost roll into town to be­gin their globe-strad­dling A Pale Tour Named Death. Hav­ing pro­moted the re­lease of their fourth al­bum, Pre­quelle, with just a hand­ful of fes­ti­val dates un­til now, by the time the jaunt fin­ishes next Fe­bru­ary Ghost will surely have ce­mented their place among the elite.

The stage re­sem­bles an Omen set. Ghost’s look and lyrics sum­mon the lord of dark­ness, but tongues are firmly in cheeks. For a mo­ment, though, dur­ing the en­core, when band and au­di­ence come to­gether to croon Mon­strance Clock’s heart-warm­ingly up­lift­ing cho­rus of – ‘Come to­gether, to­gether as a one/Come to­gether for Lu­cifer’s son’ – you re­ally do be­lieve that the devil has all the best tunes.

For Ghost master­mind To­bias Forge, it’s been a long haul from the sleepy Swedish city of Linkop­ing, hith­erto best-known for host­ing the 1968 World Ori­en­teer­ing Cham­pi­onships (nat­u­rally, Swe­den won ev­ery­thing bar the women’s re­lay, in which they were pipped by Norway), to Grammy-win­ning, po­ten­tial world dom­i­na­tion. Forge passed through a slew of mu­si­cally dif­fer­ent but com­monly un­suc­cess­ful bands be­fore four in­creas­ingly main­stream and there­fore in­creas­ingly suc­cess­ful Ghost al­bums changed ev­ery­thing.

As their ap­peal has broad­ened, Ghost have be­come mu­si­cally stronger and Forge has honed his tal­ents to the ex­tent that they si­mul­ta­ne­ously sound like both ev­ery­one and no one. They band have rid­den in on the coat tails of pa­tron­age from such di­verse fig­ures as Phil Anselmo and Dave Grohl, but Forge is his own man and his vi­sion is writ in­creas­ingly large with every step they take. Mu­si­cally, Ghost could hardly have been more Swedish if they’d driven on stage in Volvos. They have Can­dle­mass’s black-metal un­der­tow, but it’s al­lied to both ABBA’s melodic dis­ci­pline (so well­crafted that Jigolo Har Megiddo can take an acous­tic ren­di­tion and every song is a lusty sin­ga­long in English or Latin) and Army Of Lovers’ grand­stand­ing campery.

Forge is a mes­meris­ing front­man, as com­pact as The Killers’ Bran­don Flow­ers but with Jello Bi­afra’s know­ing imp­ish­ness, and, un­sur­pris­ingly since they owe so much to The Damned’s synth-drenched The Black Al­bum, Dave Va­nian’s swirl. Still bask­ing in his Car­di­nal Copia role, Forge’s eyes are blacked out, his

face ob­scured and his hands gloved. When he dons his red or black cler­i­cal gear it’s all a bit Neil Ten­nant in the It’s A Sin video, but when he bran­dishes a thuri­ble dur­ing Con Clavi Con Dio it’s star­tlingly ef­fec­tive.

Whereas oth­ers walk or strut, Forge glides, every move­ment in slow­ish mo­tion like a dock­ing galleon. Cu­ri­ously, though, his vo­cals are the weak link, too low in the mix and of­ten lost in the ca­coph­ony around him. For all that, when his be­tween-song an­nounce­ments are au­di­ble, the Car­di­nal Copia char­ac­ter is less the de­frocked pri­est of ni­hilism, more Neil from The Young Ones, whether awk­wardly promis­ing to “make your asses wob­ble” in Mummy Dust (“our only re­ally heavy song,” he claims, lu­di­crously) or telling us that “some­times life is shit, some­times life is good; tonight is very, very good” dur­ing the sole cover, a rue­ful, de­li­ciously me­an­der­ing ver­sion of Roky Erick­son & The Aliens’ If You Have Ghosts, dur­ing which he al­most top­ples off stage as he’s handed a white rose. It’s as if he’s un­de­cided whether to be a Dark Lord, a car­toon or Jon Bon Jovi.

Be­hind Forge, the seven Name­less Ghouls are a supremely well-drilled, vis­ually arresting de­light. Their face-cover­ing hel­mets make than as anony­mous as Daft Punk, but th­ese daft punks ooze per­son­al­ity. They act like stars, leap­ing on to plinths, in­sti­gat­ing hand claps and flick­ing plec­trums into the au­di­ence. And such is Forge’s at­ten­tion to de­tail that their uni­forms are iden­ti­cal down to their match­ing shoes, and not un­til they take their fi­nal, front-stage bows, is it clear that at least one of them is a woman. And when, in Year Zero, the stage is bathed in red light, Forge has his back to the au­di­ence, as­sorted names for the devil are chanted and three gui­tar Ghouls stand in line on the stage’s stairs, it’s a mag­nif­i­cent vis­ual tableaux. Dur­ing If You Have Ghosts Forge in­tro­duces each Ghoul, with a “let’s hear it for… Ghoul”. The joke wears thin only on its fourth telling.

Per­plexed by Forge’s lim­ited vo­cals and the un­der­stand­ing that, be­ing a dic­ta­tor­ship rather than a democ­racy, Ghost are a project rather than some­thing more nat­u­ral, the au­di­ence are slow to be roused dur­ing the first half, even for the ul­tra-poppy Rats and Ab­so­lu­tion with its Stran­glers-style key­boards. Yet when Devil Church de­ploys the Smoke On The Wa­ter riff and segues into the all-con­quer­ing Cirice with Forge kneel­ing at the front of the stage, the evening be­gins to soar, and when Papa Ni­hil, dressed as one of Forge’s pre­vi­ous in­car­na­tions, Papa Emer­i­tus, adds a sparkling Stooges-es­que sax­o­phone solo to the in­stru­men­tal Mi­asma, Ghost make per­fect sense.

Af­ter the in­ter­val, Forge takes pro­ceed­ings to an­other level. If not quite a slalom through their great­est hits, it’s a no-holds-barred state­ment of what makes Ghost so be­guil­ing. Spirit’s buzz-saw guitars are as cathar­tic as From The Pin­na­cle To The Pit’s ir­re­sistible cho­rus and the fe­ro­cious clos­ing dou­ble whammy of Dance Ma­cabre and Square Ham­mer, which, for all Forge’s claims, is twin­kle-toed heav­i­ness it­self.

Forge then pre­tends it’s all over. In the tra­di­tion of pan­tomime, the au­di­ence boo un­til he re­turns in mock anger (“Are you boo­ing me?” he fin­ger-wags), asks if an­other song would be ap­pro­pri­ate and makes the far-from-con­vinc­ing dec­la­ra­tion that “if I didn’t have to leave” he would rav­ish us all.

So what hap­pens now? Ghost’s show will evolve, not least since there’s a handy pause be­fore the end of Oc­to­ber, when the tour resur­faces in the United States. Cru­cially, un­less Forge takes the least likely path and ex­humes his dark side and places Satan cen­tre-stage – metaphor­i­cally at least - once again it’s dif­fi­cult to imag­ine that their foes on the re­li­gious right will find any­thing to vex them­selves over. In­stead, this feels like Ghost’s great leap for­wards.

Di­abolic? Hell no. Di­a­bol­i­cally good? Hell yes.

‘When the band and au­di­ence come to­gether, you re­ally be­lieve that the devil has the best tunes.’

Car­di­nal Copia, aka To­bias Forge: “It’s be­hind me?”

The Al­bert Hall stage re­sem­bles a film set fromOne of three gui­tar Ghouls let’s fly with somebuzz-saw histri­on­ics.

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