On the 22nd of this month (November), I had the privilege of journeying to the outer reaches of London to see one of my favourite bands live: Swedish occult rock giants, Ghost. Anyone following the rock/metal scene at the moment will know of them, storming onto the stage with tight pants, a Grammy under their arm and lots of sexual charisma.
Wembley Arena was the venue, and as I and my gig partner rounded the corner of Olympic Way, watching the immense titan of white concrete slide into view, we felt the very chill of the air settle into our bones. This was going to be a gig worth remembering. Ghost gigs, or ‘rituals’ as the fandom deem them, are pinnacles of stage design and craftsmanship; complete with pyrotechnics, stained glass backgrounds and enough outfit changes to embarrass a panto.
After making our way through security, we found a welcome atmosphere in the sheer number of Ghost shirts and make-up clad teens surrounding us. Of course, such a band enthralls people of all ages and walks of life, but it settled our nerves nonetheless. Very few bands have brought their fans together like Ghost, with each ritual feeling like an intimate communion between parish and pastor.
After almost three hours and a disappointingly underwhelming second support act (I won’t iterate their name – they genuinely seemed like nice people, but alas their music didn’t align with my tastes for the near-hour they were gifted), the familiar opening of Ghost’s latest album, Prequelle, ‘Ashes’, came through the speakers. As the spooky children finished their ominous tune of ‘Ring a Ring o’ Roses’, the striking chords of fan-favourite, ‘Rats’, brought down the curtain that covered the stage. At once, the arena was alive with cheering, the band’s ‘Nameless Ghouls’ appearing sinister, yet welcome.
Soon the (front)man himself, the lascivious Cardinal Copia, sprinted out, mic in hand, combining the onstage antics of Freddie Mercury and Adam Ant with the grace of long-dead monarchies. The man behind the mask, Tobias Forge, sang his heart out on every song of the night, and he sounded fantastic. He frequently stopped to chat with the audience, joking around and thanking them for their support. Ghost seem like one of those bands that were born to be a stadium act, and nothing but humble for it.
‘Absolution’ and ‘Faith’, tracks from the band’s biggest two albums, Meliora and Prequelle respectively, cried through the warm air of the arena hall next, complete with hip thrusts from the Cardinal and cheers from the audience. The band were on fire, barreling their way through an impressive 20-song setlist, wringing every minute they could of fire and electricity.
‘Mary on a Cross’, from the band’s latest single – Seven Inches of Satanic Panic – came next, and what a beautiful moment it was. As the Cardinal hollered its closing notes, ‘Nothing wrong with that!’, we all came together as one; an unholy parish awaiting the next sermon from its Lord. There’s no denying the sheer power Forge radiates from the stage. He dominates every chord, every wavering note, until it gives into his unearthly will.
After an amusing rendition of the Eastenders opening theme on guitar (something they only did for London, as touching as that was), the band gave us the song that got them a Grammy, ‘Cirice’, with its haunting choruses and chugging opener that harked back to the band’s early, metal roots. It would be foolish at this point to cling onto their Black Sabbath days of Opus, but songs like this really showcase their raw talent at taking the form of a sonic battering ram.
By this time in the concert, any demonic doubts of the band’s live sound were quelled and crushed under the weight of Forge’s remarkable vocals. But soon a dim blue light befell the stage, accompanied by the sway of lanterns from three dark figures, each clad in plague doctor attire. This could only mean one thing. The first of Prequelle’s two instrumentals: ‘Miasma’. This five-minute piece, packed full of guitar and Michael Jackson homage, culminates in the arrival of the original Papa, Nihil, shambling onto the back of the stage, saxophone in hand. As this decaying corpse of a person takes a deep breath and roars into the most almighty sax solo you can imagine, the audience lets out another tremendous cheer. Papa Nihil only fell back into the darkness, no doubt overcome with fatigue as we all were at this point. But not boredom. We were going to chant until our voices gave out.
‘Ghuleh/Zombie Queen’ was one of the many highlights of the night, and a personal favourite of mine. The band’s longest piece, it was otherworldly when the Cardinal took the stage and a single green light illuminated his horrifying visage. The piano-starting suite soon built into a rock track so over the top, it proved a terrifying spectacle. The ethereal mood that shook the arena was palpable, and I sang at the top of my lungs. I am overjoyed they decided to play this live – Infestissumam does not receive enough attention, especially live.
‘Spirit’ looked amazing with smoke effects and vivid green hue, accompanied by another outfit change – into the Cardinal’s delightfully spooky Plaguebringer robes – and leading into the dirty bassline that signified the next track: ‘From the Pinnacle to the Pit’. ‘Ritual’ had the crowds roaring with one of the best – and simplest – opening riffs in rock history. It was the perfect track to sum up the night, and as the band powered through to another piece from their debut, I was in heaven.
The crowds of London were, it must be said, a bit shameful with the arrival of ‘Satan Prayer’. It’s an early deep cut, for sure, but still a live staple thanks, in part, to the Cardinal donning a bat-like cloak beforehand. As the sexually voracious clergyman tried to lead his horde into the very Ghost-y chorus, ‘Hear our Satan Prayer, our anti-Nicene creed…’, I could only feel sympathy for him. Still, Forge could take the punches easily, brushing it off with a, ‘Eh, f**k it, good enough!’.
‘Year Zero’ – many fans’ introductions to Ghost – proved immense live. The pyrotechnics matched each beat of the chorus, with Copia pulling epic stance after stance. It was as if he were in command of the very elements, a composer that had another plume of smoke rise up each time ‘Satan’ was echoed in another name. It was absolutely flawless.
‘He Is’ was deeply emotional, marking a softer sound for the band (but still all about Lucifer, of course) that struck a chord with everyone in the room. If tears needed a way to escape, this was the time, and a strong sense of communion filtered through the crowds.
But then Copia came in with an invitation to lift us all back up, ‘You want to hear a heavy song? I mean, a really heavy song? It is so heavy it will tickle your taints! It will wobble your asses!’. Well, with an offer like that, from the Cardinal no less, how could you refuse? ‘Mummy Dust’, an aptly heavy track from Meliora, was awe-striking live, showering the crowd in ironic golf confetti at its climax. The other track from their new single, ‘Kiss the Go-Goat’, was wonderfully 70’s in nature, complete with purple and yellow glow.
The dance-metal anthem of ‘Dance Macabre’ marked the end of their main set, with Copia inviting us all to dance. Not a single soul was left with an arm by their sides during that song, and quite right, too. Few established metal bands would take the brave leap of stepping out into dance. But Ghost? They just don’t give a s**t.
“What are you still doing here? F**k off! It’s over! Get the f**k out! What, you want another song? Can we do one more song, huh? Alright, fine, motherf**kers! One more song. Take it away,” the Cardinal said with mock reluctance, leading us into the band’s signature stadium track. ‘Square Hammer’ was everything you needed in a gig closer. Iconic, air-pounding opening? Check. Grand, epic chorus? Check. Awesome guitar solo? Definitely. Copia gave it his all, howling along with the audience until finally it was the end. After nearly two full hours of Satanic rock ‘n roll, our first ritual was over. The Cardinal and his Ghouls bowed in turn, thanking us all for our journeys and our support.
And then the lights went up, and it was back to the normal world we went. Where people didn’t walk around with black-and-white skull paint. Or religious vestments. Where people stared at that sort of thing. Where life was… dull, if anything.
So thank you, Ghost, thank you Tobias, for everything you’ve done, but especially that night. It was one of the best nights of my life, and I owe each and every second to you. If you have Ghost, you have everything.