Monday, June 4, 2018

album review: 'prequelle' by ghost

There's a part of me that finds it really weird how big Ghost are becoming as a band.

That's not to disparage the talent behind the group, of course - in terms of metal they've hit the increasingly rare sweet spot of being able to merge progressive and heavy tendencies with actual melodies and hooks and a commitment to a gimmick that I respect a great deal. A little over-the-top and theatrical, sure, but if the music remains kick-ass like it did on the self-titled debut and Meliora, I wasn't going to complain. But that sort of theatricality tends to ostracize bands, especially with Ghost tilting so heavily into blatantly Satanic material - say what you will about Black Sabbath and classic metal bands, if you dug into their content they tended to avoid that, and even for an act like KISS that leaned even harder into their image, the content rarely backed up the spectacle.

And yet Ghost has doggedly remained committed to the content and the gimmick, and with their rising fame and in the age of the internet, that's genuinely impressive... although I had to question how much longer it would last, especially as the frontman's identity was leaked and all his former bandmates quit and then sued him for treating Ghost like a glorified solo project. And yet after a tumultuous few years for the group - including winning a Grammy - Ghost has recruited a new set of musicians and have a new record, one that was reportedly aiming to be their most accessible to date... which can be a loaded qualifier when it comes to any metal act looking to make a pivot towards mainstream rock radio, but I was curious where the hell this could be going, especially given how awesome their last record was, so how is Prequelle?

Man, I really wish I liked this more than I do. Don't get me wrong, there is a core strength with Ghost when it comes to making melodic, catchy-as-sin metal music that plays into the high camp of it all, and Prequelle is stuck in the unenviable position of immediate comparisons to the previous incarnation of the band - and for a fair few songs here, they come legitimately close to blowing past them. Unfortunately, these songs are not in the majority, and it's hard to avoid the feeling that our frontman - and seriously, I'm just going to put his name out, he's called Tobias Forge - might be becoming the David Lee Roth of 2010s heavy metal - certainly capable of delivering catchy tunes, but stepping a lot closer to a mainstream-friendly sound with less distinct personality and flair. 

Now I'll freely admit that's a loaded charge - after all, it was well-advertised that Ghost was moving towards a more radio-friendly sound, and I won't even say that it's a bad choice, as I've gone on the record being in favour of more immediately catchy, dance-ready metal music, and despite some depressingly lightweight lyrics, 'Dance Macabre' is a great song with a terrific hook and solid grooves. And that's really true about a lot of the music here, as we get a shift from the organ-infused bluesy hard rock influences from the 70s and bands like Rainbow to a more slick, synth-infused 80s metal sound - and considering I like hair metal, this should be something that wins me over immediately, especially as the lead guitar lines are faster and more developed than ever, the drum production is top-notch, and Ghost has always had a knack for balancing melodic grooves with their more folk and symphonic elements. And when you pair it with the scuzzy main riffs of 'Rats', the layered solos behind 'Faith' and 'Witch Image', the goddamn key change playing off the bells and chimes on 'Life Eternal', and the layers of solos that culminate in a goddamn saxophone on 'Miasma', that's pretty damn amazing! 

And yet if you're expecting this record to feel as heavy or ponderous as Meliora... well, it isn't, and it's tough to pinpoint the exact reason why. Sometimes the guitar tones just aren't getting the dank thickness to hit with the same thunderous presence as they had before, sometimes the synthesizers just don't carry the same body as the organs do - and on 'See The Light' and 'Helvetesfonster' they sound like tones pulled from an Ayreon record twenty years ago - but the larger issue seems to lie with new producer Tom Dalgetty, who has buffed out a lot of the crackling edge and thicker atmosphere for a mix that is much more polished. And again, this would be fine if Ghost were able to keep up the momentum... but by the time we get 'Pro Memoria' the momentum starts to sputter in favour of balladry that might pick up some interesting symphonic and folk textures, but loses that greater sense of momentum or swell. It hurts the theatrical verisimilitude of the record - and you'd think for as much as this album wants to set itself in medieval Europe it would lean into the rougher edges - and when you couple it with 'Helvetesfonster' shifting from folk atmospherics to a metal waltz cadence to a pretty great synth solo and finally to Celtic folk progressions, the shifts feel increasingly slapdash and don't quite pay off as well as you'd hope. And even with that, we have Cardinal Copia's vocals - screw it, I'm calling him Tobias Forge - and the cleaner production does not really do him a lot of favours in cultivating atmosphere - the multi-tracking doesn't feel nearly as organic, and while I like the arrangements, Ghost songs always work in spite of less impressive vocals, and that's still all the more true here.

But what really frustrates me most about this record is the content - and here's the thing, if this album was just intended as a Satanism-touched story about the plague in medieval Europe, where your death is immediate and your sin is omnipresent so why not succumb because nobody wants to live forever... well, it'd be ridiculous, but it would fit with Ghost, even if I do feel like this record leans a little too heavily on underweight hooks. Hell, as a whole the record feels less transgressive and challenging in comparison to the unsettling corruptive edges of 'He Is' or 'From The Pinnacle To The Pit' - naked nihilism in the face of death can almost feel cliche. But dig a little deeper and you realize as early as 'Faith' that many of these songs could read as extended potshots that Forge is taking at the bandmates he screwed over in a fit of unapologetic, sneering contempt, from calling out the lawsuit and their presumed mimicry on 'Faith' to how he grows stronger by their jealousy on 'See The Light' to how his retort how 'they could have sold out too' on 'Pro Memoria'. And this isn't like when Nightwish made 'Bye Bye Beautiful' off Dark Passion Play where there was layers of poetry and complicated emotions that Tuomas had when Tarja left - most of this just feels coaxed through the same theistic subversion Ghost used before just with less detail and nuance. And while if there is any project that could get away with this in terms of framing it would be Ghost... but I'm sorry, this is petty in the most boring way possible. And worse yet, it puts a serious crack in the theater that Ghost has cultivated - as much as there was serious friction behind the scenes in the very early 80s for KISS, they didn't write songs about it that could compromise the illusion - they made Music From "The Elder" instead!

...so yeah, not better by any stretch, and to be fair for as much as anyone cares about Ghost's lyrics, they do work outside of any subtext. But Prequelle is a step back across the board for Ghost, albeit one that'll probably win them more acclaim than ever. And hey, with songs like 'Rats' and 'Dance Macabre' as charting singles that's fine, but I was really hoping to love this album instead of finding only highlights from a much more uneven core, so for me it's a solid 7/10 and recommended, but only after you check out their self-titled release and Meliora first. As it is, this does feel like a transitional project and I have hopes that more success will enable Ghost to push their sonic balance further, so I'll give them the benefit of the doubt... for now.

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