Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Papa's Got a Brand New Bag of Tricks: GHOST plays Ames 11-4-18

As the moonless sky raked across the heavens Sunday night, I ventured into C Y Stephens Auditorium in Ames  to check out this latest incarnation of Ghost, the mysterious and ever-changing Swedish metal band that unabashedly courts Satan through it's horror church persona and infernal, godless lyrics.

Ghost takes the stage. Photo by Troy Church

My first intro to this band came in about 2011 when I was working part time as a line cook at a local restaurant. A co-worker, Nick (from Black Market Fetus) had taken it upon himself to burn off a few CDs to pass along, and Ghost's first full length album Opus Eponymous was among them. 

"Give it a listen," he said. "Let me know what you think."

Right away I became enthralled. By the music certainly, but maybe more by the way Ghost conducted their business. It was fascinating to me that a band could exist in the internet age and maintain such a masked level of anonymity. While it's since become known that the front man of the group is Tobias Forge, the identity of the rest of the band members remains unclear. 

One interesting theory at the time, and another factor that piqued my curiosity, was that the band was actually an alter-ego of the Swedish pop band The Cardigans, who'd shed their wholesome image for one of Satanic majesty, with inverted crosses, black papal robes and a darker, heavier image. (This rumor dispelled quickly while members of the Cardigans were spotted in Sweden while Ghost toured North America in late 2011.)  As members of Ghost have gone on to become ex-members of Ghost - I mentioned that they are ever-changing - their identities have become known. The identity of the current roster however, remains shadowy.

Cardinal Copia. Photo by Shanna Von Fumetti Wylie

Because of that first album and the mysterious nature of the band, I have remained a fan of Ghost, though admittedly I hadn't sought out any of their music since Opus Eponymous. I've kept tabs occasionally, knowing that Forge would change his persona from album to album, encrypting a new image for each new "concept," taking on a different Papal personality with each new release. What I didn't realize was that Forge had discarded the Satanic Pope image altogether to become Cardinal Copia for this latest incarnation. On this tour, he dons makeup but without complete facial disguise. 

I got the sense after seeing him perform that I might recognize him if I saw him on the street. I also got the sense that I probably have seen him on the streets, and that he looks nothing like what I'd expect somebody to look like who sings in a Satanic metal band. At the risk of pushing the envelope too far, I also got the sense that he resembles somebody who might actually be a member of The Cardigans. 

Sunday night was the first new night of Daylight Savings, and to my time-warped brain, it felt much later than 8:00. I was tired and not sure what to expect. The auditorium, while mostly full, seemed subdued and tired as I took my seat. I only sat there for about two minutes before the lights went down and the curtain dropped. Instantly I became aware that my preconceived calculation of the crowd had missed the mark, a thunderous clap erupted as the stage revealed itself to the auditorium.

Nameless Ghoul. Photo by Shanna Von Fumetti Wylie

The stage consisted of a marble stairway and terrace that sat atop a black and white checkerboard floor. Two platforms book-ended the terrace, one housing a guitar station and the other, an area where the keyboards were set up. Unnamed Ghouls took residence on each of these platforms, as well as on the stairway leading up to the terrace. Behind everything was giant set of cathedral windows with stained glass imagery. Front and center, in the middle window was a depiction of Papa Emeritus, the original Pope played by Forge on the band's first album, depicted much like you would see a once-living Pope exhibited on a window in a modern Catholic church. Smoke erupted from each side of the stage and the band held a long droning minor keyed note to set up the launch into the first song. As the song permitted, Cardinal Copia entered the stage to sing the first lyrics of the night. The crowd, already thunderously loud, erupted even louder.

At this point I should probably admit that I couldn't tell you the name of a single song by Ghost. The only CD I ever owned was one that was burned for me, and like on most burned CDs of the day, song listings weren't attached to it. I was running with blind expectations but it was enough for me to believe that  I'd enjoy the show. (That and the fact that my girlfriend is a big fan and accompanying me was everything I needed to put my ass in a seat.)

I'd seen the mockery of the band on social websites, but hadn't given it much thought. I understand that a band like Ghost isn't for everybody. Personally, I was still on the fence. I went in with blind expectations but when the curtain dropped, I knew I was in for a helluva night.

A highlight of the show was when the two front guitarists, both of whom exchanged lead parts throughout the night, participated in a battle. After a couple bouts of chasing scales, each scale a bit more complex than the previous, the battle ended when the one guitarist played a very sloppy intro to "Stairway to Heaven." After about 12 notes into Stairway, he stopped and waved his hands in disgusted defeat. It was a light moment but effectively funny. 

Photo by Shanna Von Fumetti Wylie

Another highlight was when, during a particularly intense guitar solo, Forge appeared at the top of the stairwell in full Pope toggery and accompanied the guitarists with an impressive sax solo. Forge would was constantly leaving the stage and reappearing.  Sometimes he'd be dressed completely differently, but damn if he wasn't always dressed immaculately. The way he flounced upon the stage gave the impression that he's well versed in Shakespearean play acting. Delicate and calculated, he seemed very aware of his every motion.  At times throughout the night, he gave the impression that he is a diva of sorts - In fact, his stage presence and theatrics are very similar to those of Geoff Tate's. 

Of course the band was fully disguised, wearing black robes and chrome plated devil masks. The masks didn't hinder the ability to play at all; Ghost is a well-oiled machine. Every musician was spot on, and while it was obvious that they were working hard, it also appeared that the band was legitimately having fun. Humor apparently is a mainstay throughout a Ghost concert, another quality I wasn't necessarily expecting. My experience when a band puts on a Satanic metal concert has always been that it's serious business. While Ghost was serious about putting on a quality concert, it was apparent that they were all having a blast. 

Usually when a band is having a blast, the audience is as well. 

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