"What I’ve tried to do is make Ghost a little more Queen than AC/DC,” Tobias Forge says, of the ambitious menagerie of sounds of his band’s 2018 album Prequelle. “I don’t mind a good rock banger at all, but with Ghost every song has to have its own clear idea and structure.
He pauses, before adding with a smile: “I’m a little rock opera with my music.”
By this point the hitherto ‘secret’ (but not really) identity of frontman Papa Emeritus (reborn as Cardinal Copia, but more on that in a moment) was officially out. A lawsuit involving former bandmates accelerated Forge’s decision to ‘unmask’. Come 2018 and the release of fourth Ghost album Prequelle – with a new band – and the spotlight moved to the songs themselves.
They didn’t disappoint, least of all Dance Macabre. Classic Rock’s album review said it was “a pure 80s rock-club banger that’s as audacious as it is glorious”. If Europe revisited The Final Countdown, with Satan, and swapped some (but not all) of the synths for guitars, this could have been the result.
Warmly embraced by the metal world, despite being about as un-metal as ABBA, Dance Macabre defied heavy music conventions and nailed one of the most irresistible choruses of the century. Like Iron Maiden, Marilyn Manson and Slipknot before them, Ghost have become one of those rare bands for whom a new album is so much more than a new album. It’s an event, a chance for fans who’ve waited with baited breath to see what new imagery, storytelling and feats of showmanship await them.
In the way only the best bands manage, it seemed that just as we were starting to get used to the Ghost formula, Tobias had fucked with it spectacularly.
“I’ve always tried to make things hard for myself,” he says with a sly grin. “Instead of just doing big, blunt commercial statements, I’m trying to do things in a more cinematic way. If we just continued with Papa to Papa to Papa to Papa, that would grow very boring.”
If this talk of Papas and secret identities has thrown you, here’s a brief explanation. Pre-Prequelle, Ghost’s frontman had always taken the form of Papa Emeritus, a corpse-painted, Pope-like figure delivering sermonic odes to life, love, death, sex and Satan on behalf of the mysterious Clergy, backed on stage by hooded, anonymous musicians known as the Nameless Ghouls. Each new album meant a ‘new Papa’ with a modified new look.
Then, just in time for Prequelle, things changed with the arrival of the more youthful, agile Cardinal Copia. Dressed in a black cassock, his sunken, haunted eyes peeking out from under his biretta, and sporting the kind of villainous ’tache that would have Dick Dastardly twiddling with glee, Cardinal Copia is part Monty Python, part medieval nightmare; the kind of character who perfectly occupies the murky space between camp showmanship and gothic horror that Ghost have inhabited since day one.
In short, he’s the personification of Prequelle, of which Dance Macabre is the ultimate drug that metalheads, rockers and pop fans alike just can’t resist. In the run-up to the album’s release, its gleaming, musical theatre-rivalling refrain of ‘Just wanna be, wanna bewitch you!’ was the one that everyone in the Louder offices sang at some point.
For Forge, being recognised as a shadowy, face-painted lothario, rather than his actual trendy Swedish 30-something self, feels comfortable for the time being. “I will never be able to outshine my characters,” he says. “And I’m fine with that. I am quite happy not being the main visual aspect of the creation. I would like to take credit, in as much as I’m responsible for it happening, but I don’t have to be the focal point.”