As critical and commercial accolades continue to amass at the feet of Ghost – those Satan-loving retro rockers from Sweden – one might be forgiven for wondering if founder/singer Tobias Forge (aka, Papa Emeritus I, II and III and currently Cardinal Copia), might have really cut a deal with the Devil. After all, over the course of four studio albums, the band have earned the feverish adulation of both fans and critics, not to mention the likes of Dave Grohl and James Hetfield. They notched a 2016 Grammy for Best Metal Performance and after a complete lineup change in 2016, Forge and the band’s latest iteration released this year’s Prequelle, their finest work to date and current leader of the Metal Hammer fan poll for best 2018 album so far.
If you’re just getting involved or you enjoy making and slagging off lists, here are Ghost's ten best songs.
10. Per Aspera Ad Inferi
On 2013’s Infestissumam Ghost took their occult flavour of nihilism to extravagant heights with this towering hymn of damnation. From the word “go,” the devilish Swedes have cheekily borrowed traditional Christian constructs – prayers, hymns and imagery – and inverted them into kitschy Satanic paeans. On this track, Papa Emeritus II twists the encouraging Latin maxim, Per aspera ad astra (“Through hardship to the stars,”) into something infinitely more bleak – Per Aspera Ad Inferi, (“Through hardship to hell”). Warm guitar tones and punchy, one-two tempos drive into one of the band’s most memorable and ear-wormish choruses.
Four years after forming in Linköping, Sweden, Ghost released a three track demo, followed by a 7” vinyl of Elizabeth (with Death Knell as the B-side). Inspired by the sonic grandeur of Mercyful Fate, the lyrics spin a wistful ode to Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed, known as the most prolific female serial killer in history. With the snarling chug of the rhythm guitar, eerie waves of echo-drenched leads and stunning vocal harmonies, the track became their first single, easily earning a slot on their Grammis-nominated debut, Opus Eponymous.
8. Ghuleh/Zombie Queen
Infestissumam’s stunning fifth track was somewhat lost in the playful reverie of tracks like Secular Haze and Body And Blood. However, it remains one of the most important offerings in the band’s catalogue, revealing Ghost’s ambitions as extending far beyond the safe confines of 80s hard rock. Opening with soft, mournful piano and Papa’s spectral hiss, Ghuleh/Zombie Queen builds into a dizzying freakout of carnivalesque organs and punchy surf-rock tempos, finally erupting into a full-throttle rocker. Clocking in at seven-and-a-half minutes, Ghuleh/Zombie Queen established that even as they mined the familiar veins of the classic rock landscape, Ghost were anything but predictable.
For many, the third track of the band’s debut served as their introduction to Ghost, a stupidly-addictive ode to the polished hard rock stylings of 70s legends like Blue Öyster Cult and Pentagram. Velvety swaths of organ meld with a driving bassline, crunchy riffs and golden vocal harmonies that cut a jarring contrast against lyrics so overtly Satanic that they include a Luciferian “Our Father” just for good measure. Other throwback outfits had managed to tap into the polished studio sound of 70s hard rock, but their inability to convert that sound into memorable new hits left the genre feeling uninspired. With Ritual, Ghost established that their ability to channel the spirit of their influences into bona fide, stadium-rocking anthems left them without peer.
Edging out the likes of Slipknot and Lamb Of God, Cirice snagged the 2016 Grammy award for Best Metal Performance, catapulting the band further into the mainstream. Where the previous album had balanced the guitar tones much more evenly alongside bass and keyboards, third album Meliora saw the band shift their focus back onto the power of the mighty riff, with Cirice leading the way. Behind its spine-chilling opening melody and the slashing momentum of the verse, the band’s most successful single (to date) is a maelstrom of darkened riffs interspersed with dramatic flourishes of piano and infectious, shout-at-the-ceiling chorus.
5. Year Zero
Great satire uses subtlety to separate the ones who get it from the ones who don’t. From the opening notes of their 2010 demos through the commercial triumphs of Prequelle, Ghost flaunt a superb ability to take their Satanic pageantry to absurdly-exaggerated heights, while leaving just the teensiest, tiniest speck of doubt that, “Holy shit, these guys just might be serious after all.” Year Zero straddles the line between its over-the-top, ‘Hail Satan’ lyricism and a ginormous chorus, bursting with sugary pop hooks. It’s a weird balance that dominates the Ghost catalogue, with themes of darkness and inhumanity woven into bright, hopeful melodies that in lesser, more literal hands, might end up as sappy ballads or generic radio rock. Subtle and affecting, you’ll find yourself still humming Year Zero days after you’ve last heard it.
4. Con Clavi Con Dio
Deus Culpa opens Ghost’s studio debut with the baroque purr of an organ but it’s the swinging thrust of the bassline in Con Clavi Con Dio that establishes that we’re a long, long way from church. Everything that you love about Ghost is here in spades – smooth layers of guitars, keyboards and gauzy atmospherics, with more hooks than a coat room. But it’s the otherworldly melodies that most closely identify Ghost – eerie note choices that centre on the tritone interval, aka 'The devil’s interval.' This interval dominates Con Clavi Con Dio, investing the track with a menacing sense of sacrilege and some of the finest riffs the band have ever composed.
Though Prequelle draws heavily upon the themes and imagery of the Black Plague to inform its identity, it fits equally well in our current turbulent landscape. With its growling opening riffs, pummelling tempos and fist-in-the-air refrain, Rats sees the band again celebrating their melodic hard rock influences, mixing in a bit more of NWOBHM swagger and just a dash of Swedish pop (to wit: the “ooh-aah” after the word ‘Rats,’ in the chorus). Although it follows the album’s intro, Ashes, it’s the first proper track on the record, heralding something fierce, new and aggressive. In the wake of 2016’s lineup change, Rats is the sound of Forge doubling down on his commitment to evolving Ghost’s sound while retaining its most familiar elements.
Let’s cut to the chase – there’s a goddamned saxophone solo on this track – and it’s glorious! One of Prequelle’s two magnificent instrumentals, Miasma sees the band voyaging into the cosmic recesses of 80s prog, with a blitz of synths, dramatic atmospherics, kaleidoscopic dual fretwork and yes, a sax solo at the end. Like many of their finest tracks, Miasma twists and evolves into something entirely different from its opening; in this case, it begins with a moody slab of space rock, but the final minutes see the track gathering into a breathtaking barrage of steely riffs, slamming tempos and a not-so-subtle nod to the King Of Pop himself, Michael Jackson (see minute 4:04). Ambitious, expertly polished and catchy as hell, the beings of the Universe will still be listening to Miasma long after our species has left the planet.
1. Square Hammer
With its serpentine melodies, pounding rhythms and a chorus large enough to swallow a black hole, the opening track of 2016’s Popestar, the band’s second studio EP, sees Ghost at their catchiest. From start-to-finish, Square Hammer is an absolute belter, delivering chugging riffs, groovy guitar solos and a siege of slamming, radio-friendly hooks. The only original track on the EP, Square Hammer quickly ascended to Number One on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock list and it remains a set-ending staple of their live show, due to its soaring energy and shout-out refrain. Square Hammer is one of those rarified hits that people tend to play with back-to-back-to-back devotion for days and even weeks at a stretch. The fact that Ghost are releasing some of the most vital and enjoyable music of their career bodes exceedingly well for the future of Cardinal Copia and his cursed congregation.