At heart, rock ‘n’ roll has always been theater. It’s performance, on-stage and under the lights; it’s exorcism and exhibition, a transference of raw emotion from performer to audience through words and action. It’s why guys with names like Reginald Dwight and Vince Furnier and Farrokh Bulsara rename themselves and reinvent themselves as cartoon characters, as villains, as messengers of the gods. It’s why Paul and Gene and Ace and Peter drove straight to the heart of a generation of adolescents who lived and died by Alive! and then furthered the cycle by slinging their guitars low, picking up drumsticks, and forming bands of their own.
Some bands rely on it more than others, but the theater is always there.
These days, there’s no rock band better at the theatrical than Sweden’s Ghost. Through four albums now, the recently unmasked Tobias Forge and his rotating band of nameless ghouls have risen to the top of critics’ lists, to steady sales and streams, and to winning a Grammy for “Cirice.” Easily their most accessible moment, “Square Hammer” put them atop the US radio charts, and that one clearly foreshadowed Prequelle‘s direction–it was concise, its cartoonish Satanism evident but still a hair less overt, and more than anything in their catalog (’til now), it was inescapably hooky.
Borrowing a trick from Wes Craven’s playbook, Prequelle opens with children singing a nursery rhyme, this time “Ring A Ring O’ Rosie,” which is often (and apparently incorrectly) tied with the Black Plague, and thus segues nicely into first single and Feel Good Hit Of The Summer #1, “Rats.” That one, Prequelle‘s first real song is prime (mover) Ghost: a trad-metal riff that could’ve been borrowed from an early Dio record, lifted up by creepy keyboard accompaniment, and an irresistible melody layered in harmonies that leads into a no-brainer shout-along chorus custom-built for those arenas. THEM RATS! That chorus is coming after youuuuu… There is nothing you can doooo… Oh, oh, oh, ohhh…
Following number “Faith” is Prequelle’s most metallic moment, with killer guitar harmonies entwined around a stomping main riff and another of Forge’s patented InstantHook choruses. (See also the later stomper “Witch Image,” which manages to make “while you sleep in earthly delight / someone’s flesh is rotting tonight” into a singalong moment.) Second single and Feel Good Hit Of The Summer #2 “Dance Macabre” is a straight-up 80s pop/hard rock number, somewhere between disco and riff-driven guitars, and it’s gloriously and gleefully silly, winking and grinning all the way down to Forge’s clever play on “bewitch you.” Power ballad “Pro Memoria” is both Prequelle’s highlight and one of Ghost’s finest ever songs, the kind of cellphone-in-the-air chorus custom-made for those arena crowds.
Balancing its inspiration of death and doom against Ghost’s unflagging and exhilarating sense of campy fun, Prequelle is chock full of those great moments, but taken as a whole, what’s best about it is its sheer self-indulgence, its pompous and brilliantly cinematic expanse, from string-laden classical moments all the way down to the sax solo in the rollicking prog-rock instrumental “Miasma.” In another life, it could’ve been the soundtrack to a shlocky 80s horror film, and I mean that in the best possible way–the kind of film where rock ‘n’ roll turns a perfectly normal Catholic priest into a Satanic cardinal, dancing awkwardly in front of seven black-clad, silver-masked demons, and they’re coming after you… And there is nothing you can doooo… Oh, oh, oh, ohhh…
At the end of the day, Prequelle is the album that Ghost has always been leading towards — it’s the sound of a band finally growing into its own larger-than-life aspirations, and it’s every bit as grandiose and great as it has to be. This is Ghost’s breakpoint; this is where the occult-rock band once hidden in mystery truly becomes one of the biggest rock bands around, and it’s not because of the marketing angle, not because of the outfits or the controversy. It’s because the music catches the spirit of rock theatrics and owns them masterfully, carving its own place between the Alice Coopers and Blue Öyster Cults and Mercyful Fates that spawned it. Prequelle rocks, from tip to toe, and it rocks perfectly. It’s got enough riffs to satisfy most metalheads; it’s got earworm choruses for days, got hooks big enough to keep it on the radio for years to come; it’s got pomp and pop and Satan and silliness and, more than anything else, it’s got oodles and oodles of fun.
Forge is right—this world needs arena rock, and Ghost is stepping up. Rock ‘n’ roll is theater; sit back and enjoy the show.