It’s a warm Monday morning and spring, at last, has come to the United Kingdom. But something else creeps across the face of this nation, bringing with it tales of rats, disease and burning temples. Ghost – the occult-rock brainchild of Swedish mastermind, Tobias Forge – have come to haunt Britain’s shores once more.
In March 2022, the now-legendary metal act released their fifth record, Impera, to almost unanimous acclaim – taking the number two spot on the UK Albums Chart, netting them similar chart successes around Europe and America, and even landing them a spot on Jimmy Kimmel Live! It’s fair to say that Ghost have reached the pinnacle of their career thus far, and the long-anticipated ‘Imperatour’ was now, at last, underway.
I had the pleasure of making the tour’s second night – or ritual, as they are known – at the O2 Arena, London; perhaps the greatest sign of Ghost’s success. Ten years ago, they were doing rounds at underground clubs and bars in Sweden; frontman Tobias Forge dressed in a mask he did up himself. Now, his group of nameless ghouls were accompanying him to arenas and stadiums, equipped with an arsenal of ornate, opulent vestments – each wilder than the last.
On the European dates, Ghost were joined by two support acts; the first of which also opened for them on their previous US circuit, co-headlining with Volbeat. Twin Temple fast became a fan favourite to Ghosties, with their lavish mix of Latin incantations spoken onstage, sexually-charged charisma and Satanic pastiche of 1950s’ doo-wop. For the elitists among Ghost who only wanted the days of their debut, Opus Eponymous, Twin Temple were a worthy compromise – rivalling the headliners with their use of holy water and sprayed fake blood.
Though their set was only half an hour, Twin Temple rocked and grooved through number after number, with frontman Alexandra James reveling in the devotion and applause. All the while, her husband Zacharystood behind her – clad in a red-brocaded suit, hair slicked back, showcasing his guitar skills with divine elegance.
Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats were an almost acidic call to Temple’s pensive presence; dressed in none of the noble finery, but sporting thick jungles of hair that obscured their faces entirely. Uncle Acid’s fusion of neo-psychadelic and classic stoner metal matched the wickedest highs of Opus… with tracks like ‘I’ll Cut You Down’ and ’13 Candles’ proving infectious to the masses. Though their riffs blended into one another, the skill was beyond doubt. Ghost, it seemed, had done a stellar job in selecting the right groups to excite a crowd.
But this was hardly surprising; Tobias Forge – man behind the mask – is perhaps the most theatrical musician around today; conjuring costume changes and weaving well-choreographed numbers like pieces on a chessboard. And, as the white curtain went up and the first chords of ‘Kaisarion’ resounded round the arena, such was proven.
In an instant, the curtain fell away, revealing an intricate backdrop of stained glass and Latin verse; drawing upon all corners of Ghost’s past and their complex lore. As nameless ghouls Aether, Rain and Dewdrop stepped up to the front of the stage, plucking at their guitars like crows to a corpse, it was evident that over two years of pestilence and famine did nothing to lessen the flame. Ghost was still a blazing inferno, and at last the fires came to lick at our shores.
Ghost have so far released five full-length albums, with two EPs and a single featuring some of their most-loved material. While the group play an impressive two-hour set, selecting the songs for it proves a titanic task for Forge. And yet, as ever, he knows just which tracks to stun a crowd, to excite them, to make them weep and beg. ‘Kaisarion’ – the thrilling introduction to Impera – was perhaps even better than its studio equivalent, with Papa Emeritus IV hypnotizing the parish in his sways and strides.
They barreled straight into ‘Rats’, the opener from 2018’s Prequelle, before allowing us a moment to rejoice in the rock-crushing bass of ‘From the Pinnacle to the Pit’, one of the band’s heaviest offerings to date.
‘This is a song my Papa used to sing,’ said Papa, letting the crowds scream before he even sang his first note. ‘Mary on a Cross’, another chosen favourite among the faith, was as powerful as ever, with Forge mustering all he had from the Satanic heart. After an instrumental break – with a chance for the ghouls to shine and show off their devilish sides – Papa returned, sporting full-on bat wings; flexing and flapping them at any opportunity. It was clear. ‘Cirice’ had come.
‘Cirice’ is the song that earned Ghost a Grammy back in 2016, and remains a popular anthem to this day, touching on the scars inside a person, and loving them absolutely. As Emeritus IV began serenading another lucky soul from the crowd, the ghouls stood strong, waiting for the moment to pass before crashing brutally into another chorus. The relationship between the imposing (sometimes bumbling) figure of Emeritus and his ghoulish thralls was perfected at this point; with every song showcasing playful taunts, humorous exchanges and brotherly devotions.
‘Do you like going to the movies?’ asked Papa, before storming into ‘Hunter’s Moon’, one of Ghost’s best fusions of contagious pop and hard rock. Though the song was one of the group’s more recent endeavors, the crowds – as always – knew every word, every howl, every intonation Forge had to give. Then ‘Faith’, in which Forge could really let loose; pointing a gloved finger at the ones who challenged him at every opportunity, and ultimately cost the band their anonymity.
And then, ‘Spillways’, perhaps the highest moment of Ghost’s rituals on this tour. Though not a single, ‘Spillways’’ homage to ‘80s AOR has been nothing short of spectacular to watch live, flawlessly capturing the arena audience and draining each and every one of them their absolute adoration.
‘Ritual’, alas, was the only song played from the band’s debut, but remains a strong headbanger to this day, complete with sacrilegious Lord’s Prayer and Forge doing his most intense growls yet. It’s also a song that perhaps summed the night up best – ‘On this night of Ritual/ Invoking our Master/ To procreate the unholy bastard…’ – just as Papa began making love to the microphone stand.
‘Call Me Little Sunshine’ was everything the audience begged for and more, with Papa in his iconic ascension robes; a fierce mitre atop his head and Satanic iconography across every stitch of his robes. He was never more elegant, nor more priestly, than in that moment, serenading tens of thousands on the loyalty of Lucifer.
The group’s biggest early hit, ‘Year Zero’ pleased the ones who wanted more Hell in their headbanging, with Papa re-iterating that ‘the fate of Man is that of lice/ Equal as parasites and moving without eyes’. It’s still a song that unifies an entire arena; Forge echoing the blasphemous ‘Archangelo!’ as jets of searing fire ignite from the back of the stage. It is perhaps the ritual’s biggest moment in terms of theatrics – a surefire signal that Papa hasn’t forgotten about the group’s formative years.
‘He Is’ brought great weeping, as fans hurriedly took aim with their phone flashlights and swayed them across the arena, lighting up like a thousand stars across the midnight sky. It’s moments like ‘He Is’ where Forge must take a step back and witness, first-hand, the congregation he has created. The creation he has uttered with unholy words and prayer.
‘Miasma’, an instrumental from Prequelle, rocked back into life once more, complete with the on-stage resurrection of Papa Nihil, a once-deceased figure from Ghost’s deep past. There was little time to react, however, as the old man snatched up a sax and played us out, before weakening once more and returning to the shadows. Such unspeakable spectacles are common at rituals – and yet do no less in turning the crowd feral.
By now, Ghost fans had become well-acquainted with Papa’s obsession on taints; making them tickle across the land. After a speech on the matter, we were introduced to the heaviest track in the Ghost canon, ‘Mummy Dust’. A song that truly has it all. Thunderous drumwork, the despisal of human greed, a keytar solo from one of the nameless ghouls and clouds of confetti (and Papa-fied dollar bills) fired into the crowd. It’s where Forge really gets to play fast and loose with the theatrical, before spiraling into the downright debaucherous ‘Kiss the Go-Goat’.
As the main set came to an end, Papa announced that we had a ‘triple treat’ left in store, but first gave thanks to those who helped them along the way. Applause went up for Twin Temple, for Uncle Acid, and for those who worked tirelessly that night at the arena, helping such a clergy’s vision come to fruition. And then, in true Ghost style, Papa Emeritus wanted to thank everyone who was, ‘hiding out, or scared of going out’ after the last few years.
And that’s where Ghost really sets themselves apart. Apart from all the Satanic motifs and the anti-Pope for a frontman. Away from the masks, and the sexual thrusts onstage and the hedonistic choruses. Outside of the endless questions on what genre the band belongs to, or how heavy they should be. Tobias Forge is someone who’s never, for one second, taken all he built for granted. At every ritual, he gives thanks to the fans, and especially to those who struggle with their own demons every day.
Ghost are a band that have attracted millions over the years and yet, above all, proved a lodestone for the outcasts. A holy ground for the silent, suffering mass; the ones who were, perhaps, never popular, and who never fitted in. The ones who fight with their minds constantly, the ones who feel life never gives them much of a fighting chance. Those who are different, who are ‘quirky’, who ‘aren’t normal’. Ghost have taken the rejects of a monotonous, wicked life, and welcomed them with open arms. Without prejudice. Without hate.
The atmosphere at a Ghost concert is one of real love and adoration. From the audience to the band. From the band to the audience. And from the audience to eachother. As some felt overwhelmed by their surroundings, others helped them however they could. It was not some rowdy, uncontrollable throng of irritable monsters. It was a temple, full of devout, worthy acolytes – all sharing in the unholiest of sermons.
Next came the band’s only cover on the setlist; ‘Enter Sandman’. And it proved about as good as any of their own material, catapulting the crowds back into the musical stratosphere, reigniting the crazed fire within them. ‘Dance Macabre’, once again, showed that it was made for an arena, with Papa now sporting his most dazzling attire yet; a pale blue-sequined suit jacket.
And at last, we came to the ultimate song of the set. The band’s signature, in the eyes of many. Papa reminded us once more of our worth, (and that we had to give ourselves an orgasm later that night), before giving one last command to the nameless ghouls,
‘Alright, show ‘em what you got, motherfucker!’
And the ghouls did just that; echoing the opening bars of ‘Square Hammer’, and piledriving into one of the catchiest songs of Ghost’s career. Papa Emeritus mustered the last of his energy, climbing to the back of the stage and blessing us all with those accursed words, ‘Are you on the Square?/ Are you on the level?/ Are you ready to swear right here, right now?/ Before the devil?’
It’s a song that never gets old; a compliment one could pay to any of the band’s output, in all honesty. And there, tragically, the ritual came to an end. To call it the best show of my life would be tiresome at this point. I say that after every gig. And yet I know that I truly mean it this time. I was close – closer than I’d ever been to Ghost before – I met such amazing people on my journey to that sacred city, and I bathed in the baptismal fire of a band like no other. I shared in the congregation, and basked in the unnatural. I chanted along to every line of every song, and I’m not ashamed to say I nearly cried as Papa told us just how worthy we all are.
I was anxious about this night. I was wholly unused to being back outside, let alone taking a two-hour journey to the concrete jungle of London. And by the end, I didn’t want to be anywhere else. But my story is just one of thousands that night. The old adage, ‘If you have Ghost, you have everything’ remains true. It always shall. I only hope something Ghostly comes this way again soon. And to meet them, an unholy mass, unwavering in their spirit.