London Royal Albert Hall
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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.