Ghost is nothing if not a spectacle.
The 2016 Grammy-winners for Best Metal Performance have played venues large and small over the last few years, but touring North America for 26 dates with Iron Maiden brings the band to larger crowds with an opportunity to possibly frighten but more often to inspire thought-provoking discussions about religion, life, death and mythology.
Costumed in nearly identical ‘uniforms’ of dark robes and masks, the five instrumentalists — called ‘Nameless Ghouls’ — were overshadowed by the ‘dark priest’ figure of Papa Emeritus III, clad in heavy robes and a priestly regalia that foreshadowed the band’s dark lyrics at San Antonio’s AT&T Center on Saturday.
Still, the music was engaging and the performance was visually stunning.
Opening with “Square Hammer,” which became the Swedish band’s first No. 1 hit on the Billboard Rock chart earlier this year, Papa Emeritus III struck an imposing figure from the top of the riser as the keyboard-heavy intro and catchy guitar riffs reminiscent more of 70s and 80s hard rock than anything appearing on today’s ‘heavy metal’ charts.
Bluesy rock anthem “From the Pinnacle to the Pit” followed and it wasn’t long before the band reached the Grammy-winning single “Cirice,” which has enjoyed substantial airplay on mainstream rock radio across the U.S. since its release in May 2015.
Papa’s relatively high-pitched vocals and lofty choruses of nearly all of Ghost’s songs create an interesting clash with the dark, heavy metal imagery that has attracted so much attention — and scorn — from the religious and even the music communities here in the U.S.
Despite the obvious controversy over lyrics that at times evoking Satanic themes, the band has responded that it’s a bit more complicated that simple religious or anti-religious themes.
“At the end of the day we are an entertainment group, an entertainment act, as much as a cinematic movie. It’s entertainment,” a Nameless Ghoul told the Phoenix New Times in 2013. “…Nobody has ever criticized the makers of Exorcism or the Omen. Not to say that everything we’re saying is just a joke. Obviously it comes from somewhere. There is a…..there is a thought process behind it. But I think what most people fail to recognize is that we’re not critical. We’re not critiquing against God. We’re critiquing against man. That’s one of the most fundamental differences with (our) critics… there’s a lot of talk about God, and that is not exactly what we’re talking about here.”
The music community has also been a source of some scorn, with a number of self-described metal fans taking to social media to question Ghost’s inclusion in the Best Metal Performance category, given that their songs are often a mix of pop, progressive metal, chunky guitar riffs, with classical influences and church choir backing vocals thrown in for good measure.
That mixture, while perhaps drawing the ire of modern black metal fans who identify with the lyrical content but not the music, is also what has opened doors to attract new fans through mainstream rock radio. The band even landed a performance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
A varied set of eight songs, including the prog-rock track, “Mummy Dust,” gave the crowd a solid taste of Ghost before the headliner, Iron Maiden, hit the stage. The date in San Antonio was one of three Ghost performed with Iron Maiden on the “Book of Souls” tour. Ghost also performed solo dates in Corpus Christi and Midland while trekking through Texas.
The penultimate song in their set, the prog-rock sounding “Mummy Dust,” is a good example of the group’s often misunderstood lyrical messages. While the song is indeed about a deity, bandleader Papa Emeritus III has remarked that the song is about money as a deity.
“With corpulence and greed, In God you trust.”
“Purulence and lust, I am the magnet for stupidity.”
Whatever the crowd may have understood — or misunderstood — about the band’s lyrics and iconography, there was no doubt that Ghost has grown a rabid fan base here, with thousands cheering and singing along for the band’s 45-minute set.
Ghost Set List:
Masked Ball (Jocelyn Pook song)
From the Pinnacle to the Pit
Published in cooperation with Hill Country News (www.hillcountrynews.com).
Photos by Scott W. Coleman