Ghost @ SSE Arena, 22.11.2019
As we near the end of the 2010’s, if there can be said to be a metal band out there who have made it ‘their’ decade, it’s probably Ghost. It seems incredible to think how in ten years, Ghost have gone from an obscure Swedish doom metal outfit with just one EP to their name to one of the biggest modern rock bands with four albums and a Grammy Award. And like all good heavy metal bands, they did it through writing anthemic music, putting on theatrical shows and, of course, a healthy devotion to Satan. The band present themselves as a bunch of ‘Nameless Ghouls’ led by a demonic singer who comes out with a new incarnation every album. Despite retaining their anonymity through the use of masks, a lawsuit in 2017 revealed the identity of some of the Nameless Ghouls (who there had been several of throughout the band’s history) as well as the lead singer and mastermind who was revealed to be Tobias Forge. Since then Ghost have added more Ghouls to expand into an eight piece and revealed Forge’s newest character Cardinal Copia to replace the third version of Papa Emeritus. Following the success of their 2018 record ‘Prequelle’, Ghost reached new heights and the culmination of this was a performance at Wembley Arena to round off their UK tour.
Fellow Swedes Tribulation kicked off the evening by transforming Wembley arena into a smoke-filled satanic church for the evening. The four-piece psychedelic heavy metal group are a perfect fit to open the show tonight, and despite playing a brand of music that is more commonly found in small underground venues, they take to the larger setting with confidence and ease and soon have heads banging throughout the slowly filling arena. Guitarists Jonathan Hultén and Adam Zaars strode about the stage as if it was their show and giving great energy to the performance while drummer Oscar Lender kept the intensity of the music consistent from behind the smoke. Meanwhile lead singer and bassist Johannes Andersson was a commanding presence at front and centre as he growled his way through the set. Tribulation managed to strike an excellent balance between being brooding yet still dynamic, and certainly proved to be a surprisingly successful opening act.
All Them Witches proved to be less of a good fit, as their 60’s influenced groove rock is a bit of a far cry from anything Ghost usually offer. The three-piece from Nashville, Tennessee construct a very intricate sound through which makes for good listening but unfortunately was largely lost in the rafters of such a massive venue. The trio of drummer Robby Staebler, guitarist Ben McLeod and vocalist and bassist Charles Michael Parks are undoubtedly talented musicians; with McLeod in particular contributing some fantastic guitar solos throughout, but the setting was all wrong for them to shine. Not only that, but their long shoe-gazey songs and mostly static performance were not best suited to a now mostly full arena of people who had turned out to see the theatricality and catchiness of Ghost. It is a shame that a talented group like All Them Witches could not have put up a better display for those who had gathered to see them, but hopefully they have still managed to make enough curious that they would want to check them out further.
The transition between them and the headline act saw a big black screen erected over the front of the stage, which then inevitably dropped as the introductory song ‘Ashes’ finished and the band launched into their first proper song ‘Rats’. The Nameless Ghouls were already onstage and Cardinal Copia made his entrance just after to loud cheers from the crowd. Whatever character he is onstage, Forge is an incredible frontman and immediately had the audience in the palm of his hand, commanding the audience to sing ‘Rats’ at every chorus. The theatre did not stop at just the opening however, as Forge plus his Ghouls strode about the stage which had been configured to resemble the interior of a giant cathedral. And with the seven-strong band in tow, the music is so grand that it is befitting of such a setting. For new fans, it was a great experience to see what Ghost can offer in a live setting; and for old fans it was wonderful to see the new twist that these extra musicians gave to the old songs.
Ghost also marvelled in their ability to keep the spectacle fresh and interesting all the way through their two hour set. Although a lot of the Nameless Ghouls were largely static throughout, the bassist and guitarist prowled the stage at various times, with the two guitarists engaging in an amusing guitar duel before moving into the opening doom-laden riff for their Grammy winning song ‘Cirice’. They also made use of the instrumental songs off of ‘Prequelle’, ‘Helvetesfönster’ and ‘Miasma’ (with the latter including a wonderful saxophone solo from another one of Ghost’s characters Papa Nihil), to allow Forge to change outfits and on one occasion to come back onstage on a tiny tricycle like he was the newest version of the Jigsaw Puppet. It would all be for nothing though if the music was substandard, but while those who don’t get the hype around Ghost may accuse them of using theatricality to mask a lack of musical ability, it is difficult to level that criticism at them when you see how the songs are received live. Whether it’s the groovy bass riff of ‘From the Pinnacle to the Pit’, the keytar solo of ‘Mummy Dust’ or Forge’s vocals taking centre stage for the atmospheric ‘He Is’.
It’s easy to forget just how many fantastic songs Ghost have in their repertoire to bring out for occasions such as this, many of which such as ‘Ritual’ and ‘Year Zero’ had the whole of Wembley singing along at full volume. In many ways Ghost are a bit of a contradiction in the sense that as serious and demonic as their image is, their live show is anything but. This is embodied by Forge’s Cardinal Copia who spent his time between songs toying with the crowd and making silly jokes. “Do you have your dancing shoes on, London?” asked Forge before his band began the familiar riff for ‘Dance Macabre’ accompanied by a multi-coloured light show; yet further proving that Ghost have become even more devoted to pure entertainment than they are to Satan recently. The show was rounded off with the spectacular ‘Square Hammer’, which gave the band one last chance to show off and bring out some sparks and fireworks to complete another incredible evening. Whatever your thoughts on Ghost, their music and their image are; there is no denying their success and there is no denying that they know how to put on a show. In terms of the live performance, there are few who can rival them, and their success in both this setting and their recorded output should mean that they have another highly successful decade ahead of them.