Saturday, August 29, 2015

album review: 'meliora' by ghost

So let's talk about Satanism. I dunno about you guys, but I went to a Catholic school growing up and I remember being fascinated by the sections on the occult near the back of our textbooks - mostly because I did the research and was amused to discover how much early Christianity appropriated from pagan faiths. But Satanism in and of itself, the "worship" of Lucifer, is something altogether different and in modern sects tend to revere Satan as a symbol of individualism more than a distinctive deity. They most often show up in the news not so much as a murderous cult but as countercultural trolls pointing out the hypocrisies in fundamentalist Christianity. And speaking as a Catholic... yeah, I can't disagree with that, given the mutated state of modern evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity, especially in the United States.

But one of the things I always found hilarious in those old Catholic text books were the accusations that besides role-playing games like D&D leading to Satanism, there was also heavy metal music. And here's the thing: with the exception of certain black metal bands, most heavy metal acts especially in the 70s and 80s only utilized Satanic imagery to add a sacrilegious air to their music, more for image and less for message. And given I'm quite secure in my own faith, I've never had an issue listening to music that falls in this vein - it's entertainment, people, I don't exactly take much of this seriously.

So on that note, let's talk about one of the more openly sacrilegious bands, Ghost, formerly known as Ghost B.C. in the States. They're most well-known on tour for their stage presence - all of the members are consider Nameless Ghouls but for the frontman, who dresses like a Satanic Pope, is called the Papa Emeritus, and who is 'replaced' for every album. And if all of this feels a little kitschy, their first album confirmed it, with a defiantly 70s-inspired sound that calls back to Black Sabbath, Pentagram, and maybe a bit of Rainbow or Deep Purple. And since I like a lot of that style of hard rock, their debut album Opus Eponymous in 2010 really did work - not quite as crushing or heavy as most modern metal, but making up for it with potent grooves and some rollicking guitar chops. They got cleaner and heavier on their 2013 album Infestissumam, but simultaneously traded in more potent grooves for cleaner tones and theatrical bombast that only made their satanic lyricism seem goofy as hell - definitely a disappointment. But with buzz suggesting the group was going to get darker and rougher for this next album, I had reason to hope for quality, so how does Meliora turn out?

Well, it's actually pretty damn great, effectively what Ghost should have done back in 2013 with the sophomore follow-up. The melodic grooves are thicker and heavier, the theatricality is there but handled with more gravitas and texture, and while the lineage to classic heavy metal is plainer than ever, Ghost proves they can actually write good songs beyond the riffing to put together a demonic display that is ridiculously enjoyable. I'm not saying it's not without flaws - we'll get to them - but it's definitely a return to form, and that's a pleasure to behold.

So let's start with the biggest major improvement, the instrumentation and production. Placing Andy Wallace at the production board to bring prominent melody was the first major step in the right direction, and the second was bringing in some real heft to the grooves to reach some pummelling intensity, even if they can feel pulled straight from a modern version of Deep Purple's playbook. Where Opus Eponymous was more skeletal, Ghost intensifies their basslines and grooves with enough melodies to keep them distinct even as they span choppy riffing on 'Cirice', the odd piano flourishes on 'Mummy Dust' that almost remind me a bit of Faith No More, the bass-heavy dust of 'No Absolution', and the ticking clock of 'Deus In Absentia' with more theatrical stingers on every riff. That theatricality is much more finely tuned on this record, mostly because the band has stepped away from instrumental camp for bluesy swagger on 'Majesty' that I could swear has a melodic chorus straight from Traced In Air-era Cynic, or the folk-and-prog metal swell behind 'He Is', although a lot of credit there has to go to the progressive and surprisingly complex drum patterns that cascade down and augment those grooves. Granted, one of the major bonuses is that Ghost doesn't shy away from soaring, instantly memorable choruses that would be corny as hell if they weren't so immediately catchy and potent, with 'He Is', 'From The Pinnacle To The Pit', 'No Absolution', and 'Deus In Absentia' featuring some of the best. And of course there are plenty of solos that show off some superb guitar work, particularly on 'Cirice' or 'Mummy Dust' even if I don't love the tones there. If I were to nitpick a bit, it'd come in some of the layering - the pianos stings and flourishes to augment the melodies are fantastic, but the synthesizers, organ, and theremin could have been given a slightly meatier tone or a little more volume and texture to really mesh into the mix. I liked the spacier elements, very reminiscent of Ayreon's heavier side in a good way, but they could have been a bigger component and I wouldn't have complained. And on a similar note, the two instrumental interludes are well-played, but I couldn't help but feel that both of them could have been expanded into full tracks in their own right, and on a ten song album with tracks like 'Cirice' and 'Majesty' and 'Deus In Absentia' that can feel a little long, the ideas could have been spread around a bit.

And then we have our vocalist, Papa Emeritus III. Have to be blunt here, when he's multi-tracked or more theatrical, he's perfectly serviceable. But that's part of the problem, he's only serviceable when this is a band that is screaming for symphonic or more explosive vocal presence it just does not have. Yes, I know part of it is a callback to that older era, but as Ghost brings in more modern, heavier riffs and symphonic swell, the lack of stronger vocals really does hurt them going forward. At his best, he's got a raspy sort of dark presence that sounds like a light version of Mike Patton, but at his worst on songs like 'Cirice' he comes across as nasal and out of his depth.

But in a sense this works for Ghost, and to explain why we need to talk about lyrics and themes. For those who have been keeping track, the first two Ghost albums mostly followed a loose narrative surrounding the birth of the Antichrist, but Meliora goes for something a little more high concept, specifically imagining a near-future world where there is no God and the only true faith is that of the Satanic church of Ghost. This allows Ghost to get a little more creative when it comes to their imagery and writing, even if I do think songs like 'Spirit' can feel a little clunky. Take 'From The Pinnacle To The Pit', a song that shows the steep fall that can come of a modern church leader corrupted, or 'Mummy Dust' showing a decaying faith suffocating under the weight of its own corruption and greed - a faith that is really dead but still moving and with the futuristic undertones definitely recalls Warhammer 40k in a good way. That allows Ghost to show their own faith as looser and more genuine, not just empty ritual, which allows Papa Emeritus III's softer vocals to work as more inviting, whether it be the enticement to true corruption on 'Cirice' or the revelry of 'Deus In Absentia', a title that literally means in Latin 'God Is Absent'. It makes the implication that humanity is naturally drawn to authority and sets up the enticing parallel between empty, structured ritual and the burning, egalitarian revels that at least invoke passion.

And then there's 'He Is', the centerpiece of this album, one of the best songs Ghost has ever written, and will probably end up as one of my favourite songs of 2015 - and it's a folk-inspired power ballad about two lovers finding solace in the inviting dawn of Lucifer. Which, if you know the translation, Lucifer means 'light-bringer'. The contrast is stunning -not only does it further prove my thesis that metal acts make the best modern power ballads, but there's a soaring clarity to the melodies that not just feels authentic, but that any modern Christian act would love to appropriate. That's the underlying key to this record: Meliora, a word that means a pursuit of something more, does not forsake faith but finds the heart within it - and the fact that passion is in Satanism underlies the irony of it all. And when you look at, say, televangelism or fundamentalist intolerance, wrapped in ritual that feels increasingly hollow, Ghost is making the implication that the 'future' they're describing might not be that far off, if it isn't already here.

Now don't get me wrong, my faith in a higher power is more complex to be shaken by this and frankly the Catholicism structure around it is more for arch convenience on my part than anything else. Jesus said some smart stuff - his apostles and future Church leaders did not follow his example, although I appreciate Pope Francis for trying. But it's not as if Ghost isn't making some real points the state of modern faith, and they're making much better music than the vast majority of evangelical Christian rock that isn't nearly as tuneful, energetic, soaring, or interesting. In short, I really like this album a lot, and it's getting a strong 8/10 from me. If you're interested in a modern update of classical heavy metal and you can take the Satanist stuff with a grain of salt, definitely give this a listen. Otherwise, it might be demonic, but I know quality when I hear it. 

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