Four years following the release of Ghost’s previous album, Prequelle, and at long last, the wait is over. Their fifth studio release, Impera. I’ve talked enough about this band on the blog before to render any major re-introduction obsolete. But in short, they started as a metal band hellbent on the occult and Satanic. Now they’re some sort of pop-rock, ‘80s influenced theatrical metal act, with masked anti-Pope, Papa Emeritus at the helm. Papa’s in his fourth incarnation for Impera, and it’s perhaps Ghost’s biggest departure from their classical sound yet.

The album opens, as Ghost albums often do, with a short, minute-and-a-half track. ‘Imperium’s militaristic backbeat is the first indicator of what Impera is all about – Empires, the rise and fall of them, as Tobias Forge (Emeritus when not in a painted mask) has stated in various interviews. With soft, twinkling acoustic guitar throughout, it’s the calm before the storm.

‘Kaisarion’ is the real opener of the album, and what an opener. It was hyped to almost unbelievable levels when it made its live debut weeks before the album’s release, but what transpired in the studio makes for the band’s best opening track yet. With licks of Iron Maiden, ‘Kaisarion’ is one of Ghost’s faster pieces, barraging into a five-minute runtime with a scream from Forge that’s nothing short of incredible. The song sets the scene of high-rise, skyscraping empires and untouchable idols right out the gate.

It’s an intoxicating fusion of traditionalist rock and Ghost’s iconic metal sound. Touching on the tale of Hypatia – a mathematician of ancient Alexandria that was driven from the Caesareum and murdered brutally, her limbs paraded through the city and burned – it packs everything we expect from a band like Ghost. Fast guitars? Yes. Dark backdrops? Yes. References to awful historical events? Naturally.

Ah, ‘Spillways’. When the song was first teased during a special ‘release ritual’ livestream, Ghost fans went insane. And, to be fair, it is quite possibly Ghost’s catchiest song yet – without a doubt, one of those few ‘lightning in a bottle’ songs that fire on all cylinders, lyrically and sonically. It could have been a single. It should have been. But what a nice surprise come release day. It’s Toto meets Alice Cooper’s ‘Poison’, in a lavish offering of late ‘80s glam metal. To some fans, it’s a divisive entry in the Ghost canon (for a while, many have shunned Forge’s new musical direction, preferring instead the Sabbath-esque doom metal of Opus Eponymous, the band’s 2010 debut). But for the masses, it’s a truly delectable offering.

And, particularly on album in which the lyrical content has come under fire (Watch out for ‘Twenties’, coming up), ‘Spillways’ is home to some of the best I’ve heard for years ‘It’s your burning, yearning need to bleed/ Through the spillways/ Through the spillways of your soul’. Pure poetry.

‘Call Me Little Sunshine’ was, for all intents and purposes, the first real taste of Ghost’s latest era. It took a while to grow on me, I admit, but now I simply adore it – as do most of the fans, fresh acolytes and veterans alike. It’s a heavy anthem to the dark lord, not unlike a bigger, more brooding brother to Meliora’s ‘He Is’. Whilst not as ‘80s influenced as some of the songs on this album, the drums throughout are thunderous, like something let loose from the basement of Bob Rock.

‘Hunter’s Moon’ was the first song from Impera unveiled to the world, albeit as part of the soundtrack to 2021’s Halloween Kills. Indeed, it seems a bit a last-minute addition to Impera’s tracklisting. At this point, the theme of empires and powerful deities has fallen by the wayside. But, to be honest, I couldn’t care less. ‘Hunter’s Moon’ rocks just as well as it did months ago, with the perfect balance of poppy hooks and piercing riffs.

Side one of Impera closes with ‘Watcher in the Sky’, a five-minute ode to how in the 21st century, basic, fundamental principles of science and the world can be lost or denied. Forge uses the concerning example of the flat Earth movement. Lyrically, though, ‘Watcher…’ is a bit more cryptic, and probably all the better for it. It could mean satellites, it could refer to God, or aliens. It could be anything. But that chugging riff throughout is downright bestial. It’ll be interesting to see if this one ever gets the live treatment. It’s one of the album’s deeper cuts, but a well-loved one, nevertheless.

The dexter-side of the album opens with ‘Dominion’, another instrumental track. There’s not much to it – dominated by militaristic fanfare worthy of accompanying Darth Vader and his legions. But once more we return to mental images of Roman-esque triumphs and the march of emperors, old and new. It’s a subtle touch to the album’s consistency.

Impera’s proved particularly polarizing to Ghost’s audience – more so than any other album of theirs thus far – but perhaps the most hotly contested song is ‘Twenties’. This third single is an attempt at reggae-metal, all the while narrated by a murderous emperor with nothing on his mind but total domination (indeed, the artwork accompanying this track in the album’s booklet depicts a certain recent American president…). It works surprisingly well, at times reminiscent of a Rob Zombie/Metallica love child.

A Nameless Ghoul from Swedish metal band Ghost performs onstage at Wizink Center on December 11, 2019 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Mariano Regidor/Redferns)

The lyrics, on the other hand, are Ghost’s worst to date. They are, one must note, deliberately tongue-in-cheek, inhabiting the mind of a vicious, crazed dictator. But, ‘We’ll be smooching at the feet of da ruler/ In the Twenties/ We’ll be grinding in a pile of moolah!’ is just plain s**t. More than once in ‘Twenties’’ runtime does it feel like Forge found a line he liked and grabbed the nearest rhyming dictionary to work out the rest. But I can get past the lyrics for the swaggering rhythm. To an extent. Funny how the album’s most unsubtle attack on the rise of fascism makes for its biggest party track.

‘Darkness at the Heart of My Love’ is an odd one. I’d go as far as to say Ghost’s most ‘un-Ghost’ moment yet and, regretfully, the weakest point of the album for me. Not because it’s out of the band’s wheelhouse – unlike many in the Ghost community, I welcome experimentation as a natural part of any band’s evolution (how many people mock Status Quo for ‘always sounding the same’?) – but, admittedly, I was expecting something else. As soon as I read the title, I was ecstatic to find out just what those words hid. ‘Darkness at the Heart of My Love’ comes straight out of a late-90s, cyberpunk rock opera, complete with synth solos and the image of a well-greased carburetor.

Instead, what we get is something out of Bastille or OneRepublic’s back catalogue, with added ‘metal’ in post-production. It’s by far the most mainstream Ghost have gone, and that’s by no means where the problem lies. I just find it to be one of the most lacklustre ballads Forge has put together. But perhaps, like so many Ghost tracks, it’s live where the monster really lets loose. If Impera is Tobias Forge’s stadium rock moment, then ‘Darkness…’ is the encore song where people get their lighters out and give ‘em a good wave.

But then we’re treated to ‘Griftwood’, and once more I’m convinced this may be my favourite offering from the Swedes (no mean feat given my persistent adoration for Infesstissumam, their sophomore record). ‘Griftwood’, like ‘Spillways’, is no doubt inspired by the AOR of late-night, late-80s radio broadcasts. Embodying the mind of a powerful political figure used to getting what he wants (Forge used Mike Pence as an example ahead of Impera’s release), the song throws out hollow promises and lascivious trades for opulence – ‘You want to play with the sire? (Yes)/ You want a view from the spire?’. It’s got one of Ghost’s best solos yet, and it’s one straight out of Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet days.

‘Bite of Passage’ completes the triumvirate of Impera’s instrumentals, and if there’s one thing the Ghost community agrees on, it’s the complete pointlessness of this track. At thirty seconds long, it serves the purpose of hyping us up for the album’s closer, ‘Respite on the Spitalfields’. I understand that Forge probably wanted the closer itself to open with the crashing of drums, but in the process it gives ‘Bite…’ the awkward position of being a half-minute long, and lacking any real substance. Bizarre.

‘Respite on the Spitalfields’, however, is one Hell of a climax – rivalling the likes of ‘Life Eternal’ or even ‘Deus in Absentia’ (Infestissumam’s ‘Monstrance Clock’, however, reigns victorious, and probably always will). ‘Respite…’ tells the wicked tale of Jack the Ripper, who stalks the streets of Whitechapel; a killer at large, no one knowing when his murderous streak will end. The lyrics are a mixed bag, in truth – ‘Like salting Earth with tears of Jesus/ He sliced and diced our dreams to pieces’ – but the song itself is by far the most musical Ghost have ever gone. To full effect.

Forge crafts a six-minute monstrosity of electrifying guitar solos and soundscapes of death and despair. Does it have anything to do with empires, really? No. But it’s got a truly epic chorus and savages the heartstrings relentlessly. It’s a worthy end to an even worthier album.

This album was perhaps Ghost’s most anticipated release yet. It’s arrived in the wake of a pandemic, the aftermath of Copia ascending from Cardinal to fully-fledged papa, and in the midst of an increasingly-eclectic sound, mystifying and captivating fans alike. The band’s follow-up will likely ramp up the tension even more. But for now, honestly? Impera lives up to the hype. Many of the tracks on here were instant classics, and those which proved to be slow burners are now up there as some of the group’s best.

Any album boasting the likes of ‘Kaisarion’, ‘Spillways’, ‘…Little Sunshine’ and ‘Hunter’s Moon’ on just one side is nothing short of genius. And once again, Tobias Forge has proved the perseverance of both his songwriting ability and knack for making the theatrical mesmorizing. And this is just in the studio, when Papa’s constrained to the purely audible. Look out for how these songs sound – and more importantly look – in a live environment. Perhaps the only thing that can make Impera better is the accompaniment of stained-glass backdrops and long, sweeping cloaks.

Love it or hate it, Impera is the band’s boldest statement yet. And for many in the parish – me included – it could well be their best. I cannot wait to see where Forge takes Ghost from here on out. But one thing’s for sure, I’m staying every step of the way.