Radio rock has been long overdue for a shot in the arm. Seemingly hundreds of bands have been churning out the same formulaic, derivative, stale and downright boring hard rock since the mid-2000’s (and perhaps even earlier). Hell, even the playlists of the two rock stations in my city are dominated by pre-1999 singles. A decade plus of unoriginality later (don’t get me wrong, there’s still a ton of it out there), the [once] unlikely heroes, Sweden’s Ghost, are here to save the day.
If you aren’t familiar, Ghost rose to worldwide cult-level popularity with their Mercyful Fate-esque catchy doom metal, gradually injecting more accessible elements across their first three albums, 2010’s Opus Eponymous, 2013’s Infestissumam, and culminating in 2015’s Meliora, which was received with critical acclaim. Lead single “Cirice” allowed the anti-Pope-dressed frontman and his band of “Nameless Ghouls” to snag the 2016 Best Metal Performance Grammy award, alongside a closet full of Swedish Grammys and other global accolades. With their aura of anonymous mystique and 1970’s progressive hard rock sound, Ghost transcended the underground metal world and accumulated a massive following. 2016 single “Square Hammer,” a compelling and undeniably catchy combination of Blue Oyster Cult influence and a modern sheen, rose to number one on American rock radio and subsequently sent the Ghost album four hype to new heights. A little over a year later, and now unmasked as the sole mastermind behind the Ghost musical venture, Tobias Forge has delivered with Prequelle.
A foreboding intro in the form of the world’s favorite Black Plague-themed nursery rhyme sets the stage for lead single “Rats,” with a 1980’s Ozzy-era driving guitar riff and a haunting chorus. While not as immediately catchy as “Square Hammer,” “Rats” has already shot to number four on American rock radio (at the time this review is published) and is sure to be a live show set staple. “Faith” follows, and the heavier rhythms seemingly call back to the Ghost of old. Both “Rats,” “Faith,” and the rest of the record for that matter, deliver impressive guitar solos, an always well-executed attribute of Ghost’s catalog.
“Dance Macabre,” “Witch Image,” and “See the Light” usher in the new era of Ghost teased previously on Meliora’s “He Is,” with stadium-ready choruses that resemble Journey and other 80’s arena rock acts much more so than Black Sabbath, which previous Ghost tunes have been likened to. The extremely poppy “just wanna bewitch you” chorus and dance-able rhythm of the aptly-titled “Dance Macabre” ought to ensure this track’s success as a radio hit following the “Rats” tenure. Like “Square Hammer” previously, “Dance Macabre” leaves an undeniable impression on the listener at first spin. “Witch Image” and “See the Light” are infectiously catchy and grandiose in their own right, complete with effective keys and ear-worming lead guitar melodies. Tobias’ vocal prowess shines on this trio of songs (the best performances of his career), and the hooks on each ensure unquestionable rock radio potential.
Fine keyboard work appears again on “Pro Memoria,” a slower cut from the album slightly held back by the chorus’ poor lyricism, but is redeemed in having one of the album’s best guitar solos. Instrumental “Miasma” may be another non-highlight, as it could be labeled “filler material” for its relatively standard structure, yet the surprising saxophone solo makes for an enjoyable listen nonetheless. The other non-vocal track, “Helvetesfonster” is much more effectively placed within the album. Fellow Swede Mikael Akerfeldt of Opeth fame plays the acoustic, almost medieval sounding back half of the track following a long, mystical keyboard introduction. As a whole, “Helvetesfonster” is a solid progressive piece harkening back to 70’s Emerson, Lake and Palmer and, though it may stick out a bit on the record, effectively sets the stage for the standard edition album closer “Life Eternal.” A gradual build and epic crescendo, “Life Eternal” may be the best Ghost album bookend yet, encompassing all the themes and influences that make the rest of Prequelle so fantastic.
Altogether, Prequelle effectively introduces the new and improved Ghost. Gone are the downtempo doom metal leanings, and in with the pop-influenced progressive arena rock. The roots, however, have stayed the same. Remaining fully fixed in exploring a range of 1970’s and 80’s hard rock, Prequelle leans farther toward Blue Oyster Cult and Journey with a dash ABBA and Black Sabbath rather than Candlemass or Deep Purple. Ultimately, Tobias Forge undoubtedly wants to take this act to the next level by injecting more pop sensibility than ever before (two Swedish pop writers lent a hand to the creation of several tracks here). The transition started with Infestissumam’s anthemic “Year Zero,” and was furthered in many tracks from Meliora and the entirety of Prequelle. In terms of both sonic quality and popularity, Forge is absolutely succeeding: currently headlining “An Evening with Ghost Tour,” featuring two-hour sets in massive theater venues with no opening acts. It’s fun to watch their rise (modern rock needed this), and its even more fun to listen to.
Seeing “pop” being thrown around in reference to an occult retro-rock act that once headlined the obscure rock underground may come as an instant red flag to a stubborn metalhead. But the overarching themes of death and the end of the world still remain, as do the haunting church organs and ominous soundscapes. Additionally, the lore Tobias has created for his stage act is not tarnished but furthered with Prequelle, introducing “Cardinal Copia” (aka Forge as an “anti-Cardinal” rather than the anti-Pope Papa Emeritus). The concept of the record lies in beating the Black Plague according to Forge, and the themes of survival make Prequelle the most positive-sounding yet captivating Ghost album to date. Here, he has silenced the naysayers and the critics labeling the act a “gimmick” or “one-trick pony” once and for all with the diverse and enthralling Prequelle. The hype for this album reached heights a modern rock record rollout hasn’t seen in some time, and, after living up to it, perhaps this is only the beginning. Ghost are taking the crown of radio rock’s best band, and hopefully leading the revival of a nearly dead genre.
Watch the Instagram-story premiered music video (featuring many celebrity musician cameos) for the hit “Dance Macabre,” and try not to sing along, below: