It’s been a while since metal has felt big. Not Andrew-Lloyd-Webber’s-wet-dreams-symphonic-metal big, but ravenously ambitious, let’s-take-pop-on-at-its-own-game big. You have to go back to the late 80s and hair metal’s chart-gobbling heyday for a time when bands really, truly wanted it.
Sly old devil that he is, Tobias Forge has known it all along. A diabolic masterplan has slowly unfolded over his band’s four albums to date, with Ghost revealing the unabashed arena rockers beneath their (oc)cult metal raiment on 2018’s Prequelle being the biggest tell so far, not least Dance Macabre, which found our (anti-)hero hooking up with Avicii and Madonna’s old songwriters to deliver the 80s hard rock dancefloor banger to end all 80s hard rock dancefloor bangers.
With Impera, Ghost have gone several steps further, serving up the greatest arena rock album since the invention of the permed mullet/slashed denim jacket combo. The glorious, arms-in-the-air approach of its predecessor is ramped up a hundredfold here. Every chorus is bigger, every backing vocal is stacked to the heavens, every booming drumbeat makes Def Leppard’s Pour Some Sugar On Me sound like a pensioner absent- mindedly tapping on a pile of wet bog paper with an out- of-date sausage roll.
Opening track proper Kaisarion lays out the rules of engagement, kicking in with an honest-to-god 1987-vintage scream that’s instantly followed by the kind of staggeringly brilliant chorus that rock bands forgot how to write years ago. Billowing goth-metal anthem Hunter’s Moon piles on the pantomime drama with cascading piano and monastic chants, though it’s hard to tell whether the chilly mist that surrounds it is dry ice or Aquanet hairspray. Closing track, the Jack The Ripper-inspired Respite On The Spitalfields, even has the brass knackers to nick its sawing string riff from Whitesnake’s Still Of The Night and at least one vocal line from Europe’s The Final Countdown.
Tobias’s desire to turn Ghost into a rubber-stamped chart-straddling colossus is reflected in his choice of co-producer. Klas Åhlund has worked with Katy Perry and Robyn, and he helps ratchet the tuneage up a dozen notches. Spillways is a free-poured shot of 110%-proof melody that cribs its jangling piano riff directly from Abba, while the whispered vocals and knowing finger-clicks of Darkness At The Heart Of My Love is a lesson in how to deliver a solid-gold power ballad with devilry in its eyes.
Yet while Impera is pop-savvy, it’s never frothy. Watcher In The Sky is fuelled by a brutally simple yet hugely effective riff, while the scabrous Twenties matches its dark grind with a high-kicking flamboyance, rhyming ‘moolah’ with ‘hoo-hahs’ for good measure. The latter is Tobias’s gimlet-eyed social commentary on modern life – part of a broader theme loosely centred around his disgust at modern society (another song, Griftwood, belatedly dunks on former US vice president Mike Pence – an unlikely inspiration for any song in 2022, metal or otherwise).
All that conceptualising is fine and dandy, but Impera wins on bolshiness, bravado and skyscraping songs alone. Ghost have turned in a modern metal classic with an arena rock heart. It turns out the devil doesn’t have all the best tunes. Tobias Forge does.