To anyone pining that there are no more true rockstars, that the pageantry and ass-kickery of old is dead, do yourself a favor and go to a Ghost show.
The music itself, rooted in Scandinavian black metal and bred with old-school rock and roll, is worth the price of admission. However, Papa Emeritus and his five Nameless Ghouls weave an element of theater into the performance that elevates it above your run of the mill concert experience. Papa and his Ghouls have gone to great lengths to keep their true identities a secret, and have so far been largely successful. No band members are credited with their true names anywhere, and this anonymity allows the band to disappear into character on stage, suspending the disbelief of the audience in a way that few, if any, masked artists have been able to accomplish.
For the last show of the Popestar Tour, Ghost brought their devilish fun to the Kings Theatre in Brooklyn, New York – a fitting venue, as the 4,000 seat hall boasts ornate and impossibly detailed hand-carved, hand-painted walls and ceilings throughout, giving it the appearance of a centuries-old cathedral to match the liturgical theme of Ghost’s live shows. Going in, it was clear that Ghost fandom is a loyal and faithful congregation. They’d have to be to drop $40 (yes, $40) into the collection plate for a t-shirt. Numerous costumed fans reinforced this commitment including but not limited to: an 8-ish year old boy in full Papa Emeritus face paint with matching black tailcoat, a man dressed as a cartoonish red devil wearing a three piece suit, and a fan in monk’s robes donning a particularly sinister horned demon mask not dissimilar to the ones the Ghouls wear.
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As the lights came down over the theatre following opening act Marissa Nadler, the dutiful masses settled into their pews. Stagehands genuflected at center stage before removing the black sheets over the drums and keyboards. The only source of light was an eerie purple glow while the stage filled with fog, and somewhere in the middle of the lower level a U.S. Navy sailor on shore leave repeatedly yelled “Hail Satan!” Gregorian chants echoed throughout the concert hall, and the many thousands gave thanks and praise.
Then, blackness, followed by low red lights cast across the pit section. One by one, the Nameless Ghouls took the stage, individually lit, and erupted into track one of the new Popestar EP, “Square Hammer”. When Papa Emeritus, in full blasphemous dark pope garb, took center stage, all able-bodied hands went straight up. The lights went full to reveal a multi-tiered stage arrangement made to resemble an altar. On stage level, the three Nameless Ghouls on guitar and bass duty had free range to run, while in the middle tier, keys and drums took left and right while Papa occupied the middle. In the background, strung high up on the back wall, a forty-foot tall banner made to resemble sacrilegious stained glass windows. The Ghoul on bass rumbled into “Pinnacle to the Pit”, a fittingly themed song about the descent into hell, and brought the audience with them through the gates, concluded with five pyrotechnic explosions like shotguns along the back wall.
Before continuing, it’s important to note that nobody inhabits and embodies a stage persona like frontman and clergy leader Papa Emeritus. His energy is contained and reserved to microexpression, motioning and gesturing to the crowd as though he were giving a sermon while the Nameless Ghouls do all of the rocking. He walks, even struts, slowly across the stage like some combination of a satanic church leader, orchestra conductor, and lounge singer. Following crowd-favorite and previous single “Secular Haze”, he disappeared offstage for a moment and returned carrying an incense burner on a chain like one might see at a Catholic mass. He waved the smoking orb around, blessing the stage during “Con Clavi Con Dio”.
“Per Aspera Ad Inferni” followed with its rhythmic march of a chorus. The Nameless Ghouls, despite their masks and uniforms, embraced rockstar temperaments on stage, meeting in various places to solo back-to-back and lift their instruments up. Before “Body and Blood”, we got our first break from the action to hear Papa speak. Two fans dressed as nuns, dubbed the “Sisters of Sin” by Papa, were brought out on stage holding a plate and a goblet to mimic the Catholic Eucharist ritual. In his relaxed, tongue-in-cheek persona, Papa pontificated on the “culinary” angle of the song, remarking that it was about the consumption of flesh, a twist on the symbolic nature of the sacrament of communion. Though it was about eating, he joked “it doesn’t come with no fucking cole slaw.” Here we got to see the comedic angle of Ghost’s collective persona, and that they don’t take themselves entirely seriously. Perhaps that’s why there were children in the audience. More on that later.
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After “Devil Church”, Papa disappeared again to ditch the pope vestments, and returned in his secondary outfit of black tails. Behind the riser, white floodlights illuminated the billowing smoke, and with the clever use of fans, drew it inward to create incredible concentric vortexes of smoke around the lamps. These portals persisted throughout their Grammy-winning single “Cirice” and led into “Year Zero”, which begins with a dramatic choir of voices invoking the names of Hell’s most famous demons before leading into a driving march toward apocalypse, and concluding with a dramatic and unexpected eruption of five tall pillars of fire along the back of the stage. While pyrotechnics are nothing new, it is critically underused and refreshing, proof positive that rockstars and the shows they put on are in no way dead as long as Ghost are around.
Musicbox-like interlude “Spoksonat” then played over a darkened set, and led into the acoustic intro of “He Is”, a twinkly ballad of praise that would sound beautiful until you remembered that the “He” they’re talking about is Satan. No need to rest on beauty in a Ghost show, however, as the next song brought a little bit of the edge back with the darker and harder “Absolution”. Following this one, Papa preached again, making not-so-subtle allusions to the present state of American politics. “Everybody say ‘yes!’” Cheers. “Say ‘yes!’” Cheers again. “No. No, he is not the fucking president,” Papa lamented in disbelief. Cheers again, this time a little more confusing, as judging by the types of people in the crowd, it was difficult to determine if they cheered in agreement with his dismay or in favor of Trump. Hopefully it was the former. Papa continued, “He’s such a fucking bastard, we wrote a song about him.” While this is a retroactive joke in reference to Trump, the song is written about the evil of money, so it makes a good deal of sense. During this song, “Mummy Dust”, the audience got an even bigger taste of Ghost’s showmanship. Ever think you’d see a keytar solo concluded with cannons full of glitter and confetti being emptied onto the pit section at a metal concert?
“Guleh / Zombie Queen”, a seven-minute adventure carried the show closer to the end as the fire pillars again lit up the stage, the heat felt on the faces of everyone from the lip of the stage to the front of house engineer. During “Ritual”, Papa Emeritus carried the follow spotlight around the stage, striking poses as he wordlessly introduced the band members, bowing dramatically, snapping his fingers along to the music. It being the last show of the tour, at the song’s conclusion, Papa rallied the opening act along with the other Ghouls at the front of the stage for a picture and a bow like the end of a theatrical performance, which by anyone’s standards, their show basically is.
Everyone but Papa and the keyboard Ghoul, who noodled a little background music, left the stage, and he bantered once again with the nearest fans. “We have come to the end of the show, but did you think we’d leave you with a shitty ending like that?” Speaking directly to the children in the crowd, he explained that he “likes to say ‘fuck’ a lot, because [he thinks] people should fuck a lot.” This last song, he explained should be considered an orgasm. “We’ve been flirting all night, so I think we should go out with a bang!” Fitting that this particular song actually is about orgasms, he said, and thus why it’s always their last one. While some of the parents may have been bemused by this little lesson in biology, Papa considered it a learning experience for the kids. With that comedic conclusion, the band came back out to conclude the show with “Monstrance Clock”, and we were released from our dark mass back into the world.
Ghost are living proof that there are still true rockstars left in the world. Fire? Check. Larger than life personality? You bet. Keytars, confetti, air cannons, thrusting guitars, wild solos? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. There’s also the thin line between theatrics and triteness to consider. Papa Emeritus personally treads this line with every flourish and word of banter. Ghost may have the spooky appearance down, but they don’t let it overshadow the fact that the music and the show are supposed to be fun, even funny. They don’t take themselves as seriously as costumed metal acts like Slipknot and the much more extreme Portal do, and that’s exactly how it should be. Despite the dark themes, the inherent blasphemy never crosses over from simple stagecraft to truly evil. With unparalleled command of the stage and damn good music to back it up, Ghost are bringing their parodic sacrilege straight to the top of the music world. Hail Papa!