This article originally appeared in Metal Hammer #219.
The room is dark and silent. On a small wrought iron table in one corner sits an old-fashioned telephone. It rings, the metallic chime cracking the gloom with the merest hint of foreboding. A stranger is calling…
When Ghost come haunting, you don’t put them on hold. That privilege remains theirs alone.
“We had to burn a church,” croaks a vampiric voice. “We are truly sorry for the misunderstanding.”
Hammer have been Ghost hunting for days. Despite our most heroic efforts, these enigmatic Swedes proved extremely elusive. At the 11th hour, however, an audience has finally been granted and it’s gratifying to know that the circumstances surrounding the delay were not trivial. Whoever said church-burning was passé?
For a band no one knows anything about, Ghost are the talk of the town. Formed in 2008, they slowly but surely built a cult following in the rarefied environs of the true metal underground. Since the release of their debut album, Opus Eponymous, however, their rise has been meteoric. Their success, if hardly overnight, has been at a rate which would give most bands a nosebleed, its swiftness from a source that must surely be Satanic.
“I think it’s natural that we create a stir,” intones the solemn voice, identifying itself only as ‘one of the Ghouls’. “One of the main ingredients in our entertainment pot-pourri is quality music with passion and whenever Satan is around there’s an element of attraction that gets to people’s loins and tickles the right places.”
Unlike most of their contemporaries – if they even have any – Ghost are deeply comfortable in the mainstream glare which is increasingly being trained upon them. They’re one of the must-see outfits lined up for this year’s Download and remain remarkably unfazed beneath the media microscope.
“From the beginning we had commercial ambitions,” explains Ghoul. “Part of the manifesto is that we are supposed to attract more people than your mundane underground metal band.”
The most intriguing thing about Ghost is that no one knows just who the hell they really are. Each member is merely referred to as ‘Ghoul’ and there are no matching entries in the Stockholm phone book. What we can say with certainty is that Ghost are a shady cast of characters engaged in an elaborate game of cat and mouse to avoid detection, their identities cloaked in a shroud of secrecy, protected by an intricate web of deceit. Surely this façade will become increasingly difficult to sustain as public scrutiny increases?
At London’s Live Evil festival – an international underground showcase which Ghost headlined – the top conspiracy theory doing the rounds was that Ghost are a super-group made up of members of various established bands who, for whatever reason, do not wish to reveal their true identities at this time. Which prompts the question, if Ghost are not in fact already well-known figures, why bother with a cover-up?
“We do not wish to pollute the magickal aspect of the band,” says Ghoul. “If there were identities of normal living individuals, this concept could never materialise. What people see, hear and experience with Ghost is the result of the fact that they do not see individuals.
“The question of the members of the band being known already; people would be surprised if they knew how unknown we really are. The people we’ve heard about as being suspected members of the band look very different to us. I have heard many theories and they are really ludicrous. Many people forget to check their calendars. They want to place in Ghost members of certain other bands who were in other places in the world at the same time. Double check your facts. But it works in our favour as speculation is also part of the concept and confusion that is Ghost. In our terms, it is mission accomplished.”
Ghost have stated previously that it doesn’t actually matter who they are, it’s their message that counts, but it’s only a matter of time before this mystery is undone. And what of friends and family? Are Ghost’s clandestine activities kept hidden even from their nearest and dearest?
“Hope is a weird word in our world but hopefully it won’t matter in the long run,” Ghoul reasons. “Ghost is a cultural experience and we wish to deliver a show. As much as certain people want to sabotage us and get a scoop, I think that the vast majority of our followers place worth on the fact that they’re being entertained and that comes first. As for family, the sect that we are involved in results in absence which is hard to cover up. So I guess a large part of our immediate surroundings are aware that we are up to something weird.”
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Along with lying and deception – both appropriately Satanic – Ghost’s key device for maintaining anonymity is their clothing; purloined religious garb and scary masks. Presumably, this get-up must be worn pretty much 24⁄7 and it must get hot onstage. “It depends on what type of event it is,” says Ghoul matter-of-factly. “In a typical metal crowd our entourage can usually look inconspicuous. Obviously we don’t dress up all the time. That would be ridiculous. At many of our concerts we can come off stage, dress down and basically go to the bar. Nobody knows who we are.”
Ghost are not secretive about the fact they’re as much apocalyptic cult as metal band, their music crafted to capture, channel and reflect these tumultuous times. The end times, no less.
“The entertainment and philosophical aspects are closely entwined,” explains Ghoul. “What we are saying is not fiction; it is a state we are in entirely, the end of days. We put it in your face and it’s like a numbing, an injection into the body and we say with a smile ‘Please enjoy your death.’ We are reaching out to people and there are many coming to our concerts. Some people find it funny, some people find it solemn. What we are actually doing is revelling in the hell we are in. We’re singing about the end of the world and the death of mankind and people love it.”
Along with the likes of The Devil’s Blood and Blood Ceremony, Ghost form the vanguard of an occult rock renaissance which continues to gather pace. Talk of outright Satanism, however, seems misplaced.
“Satan as an entity is the backbone of our entire concept,” says Ghoul, “but you’re obviously referring to press statements from the record company. Nothing of it is a lie but it emphasises words that people latch onto. We’re a cell within a movement whose mission is to reflect the state of mankind and the Western world in particular, the collective confusion about what is sweet and what is savoury, what is good and what is bad. There is no militant agenda. What gets to people is that we are touching the primordial part of the mind, the forbidden, the passionate, the most human. Throughout time that’s been synonymous with the devil.”
It’d be unfair to focus solely on the sensationalist elements of Ghost. Although they confess that they exist in a “twilight zone between music and theatre”, the buzz surrounding these buddies of Beelzebub has more than a little to do with their sound. The quality of their doomy, atmospheric metal suggests that, whoever these people are, they’ve been doing this for some time. Sporting more hooks than hell’s cloakroom, Opus Eponymous is criminally catchy, offering further evidence, if more were needed, that the devil really does have the best tunes.
“There’s always been darkness in rock’n’roll, be it Elvis or Mick Jagger, something sexual and dangerous,” reflects Ghoul, “but however black and faceless we are, I have a conception that we are colourful. Ghost are rooted in many different elements; black metal, hard rock, pop, jazz and even funk. A lot of bands have put a lot of effort into how they look but unfortunately they draw a short straw when it comes to songwriting and performing. It’s our intention to make music that’s very moving and in future most people will remember us for our music.”
Ghost make a convincing case for the idea that metal doesn’t have to sound like a spin dryer full of spanners to invoke that which lurks in the shadows. Undeniably haunting and yet smooth as a soothing balm, their soft-focus Satanism and disarming pop sensibility clearly have a very bright future, even if the rest of us don’t.
“The way things are moving at the moment, it’s not possible to see a future for humankind as we know it,” Ghoul concludes. “The ironic thing about civilisation is that it’s getting smaller and is less than it used to be. The chance to have a rich and fulfilling life is slowly becoming nothingness. We’re on autopilot and moving quickly towards the abyss. We’re very close to the edge and most people believe this is the end of the world although nobody sees themselves as part of it. The world is falling apart outside the room and they sit in there with their dream, their book of faces. We simply embrace the fact that we too are human and part of this cesspool, this inferno. We embrace the fact that we’ve come to the end.”