If you’re a Portlander and “Keep Portland Weird” is part of your civic ethos, there’s no weirder place you could have been on October 21 than at the Roseland Theater for a concert featuring Swedish occult rockers Ghost.
We’re talking about a capacity crowd of 1410, who cheered the diabolic sextet to the last riff and were often able to sing along with songs like “Monstrance Clock” and “If You Have Ghosts.”
A lot of the love centers on lead vocalist Papa Emeritus, a charmingly transgressive frontman whose stage garb conjurors by turn an apostate cardinal and undead count, and whose vocals evoke pews full of fallen choirboys.
It’s Papa’s stage presence and “clean” singing that figure Ghost to be a durable manifestation in the hard rock and metal genres. Fans are accustomed to vocal tracks that replicate what you might hear from demons who roam the east bank of the River Styx.
Papa Emeritus leads the listener down a different path, with dark theatricals made all the more sinister (and at the same time, appealing) by his youthful and melodic voice.
Adding to the mystery is the fact that the names of the band members have been kept secret; the dual guitarists, bass player, keyboardist, and drummer wear horned masks, and are known only as Nameless Ghouls.
As for Papa, this is the third unidentified singer in the band’s nine-year history to don the robes and sing homage to the anti-Christ. Interestingly, Papa III is Papa II’s younger brother.
Everything begins with a disturbing intro—Ghost has secured the rights to play the back-masked musical incantation delivered at the infamous party scene in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.
More hard rock than metal, Ghost works in a thematic milieu of powerful theological imagery, as others have done before them. A minor-key Blue Oyster Cult influence tinctures the ghostly mix. Sabbath’s upside-down cross adorns the band’s logo. A tip of the black hat must go to King Diamond, the only major metal star to ever have come out as an avowed Satanist.
There were some spooky incarnations in the Roseland audience. Women in provocative nun’s habits, guys in smoker jackets who resembled Gomez Addams, and another fan who, right up to her red-devil headband, recalled the medium called in Poltergeist to rid the house of spirits.
There were also hundreds of burly young suburban guys, scores of forty-somethings who cut their teeth on the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, and a smattering of curious old metalheads (like me). One high-profile ejection and an unfortunate stairway accident for a male concertgoer brought ungraceful notes to the celebratory proceedings.
In one moment between songs, Papa Emeritus went to the edge of the stage to caution a pair of head-banging parents (?) about the child with them down front.
There were titters of nervous laughter; the dark pope at his most priest-like.
Hard rock and heavy metal are healthy genres, and ubiquitous in our culture. But they have waned in popular influence since Metallica’s “Enter, Sandman” reached #16 on the Billboard 100 chart (1991). Urban music, rock-and-roll country, and big name pop stars have lured millennials and a more demographically diverse youth market away from the horsemen of heaviosity.
Released in August, Ghost’s third album, Meliora, debuted at #8 on the Billboard 200 chart, and sold an estimated 29,000 copies its first week.
Does the appearance of Ghost warn of/herald a resurgence of heavy rock into the popular music mainstream?
Stay tuned. The band has announced that on October 30, the eve of All Hallows Eve, they will make their American television debut as musical guests on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
Strewn with the eerie stylings of Papa Emeritus III, Ghost’s classicist orchestration sounds a harmonious note.
Didn’t they always tell us that when Satan comes he will be a real charmer?