Swedish Occult Band Ghost Reanimates the Sound and Image of '80s Metal

The band Ghost is made up of six ghouls from Sweden. Seriously—the five musicians behind lead singer Papa Emeritus are officially credited on the band's 2010 debut album, Opus Eponymous, as Nameless Ghouls. They're inspired by classic heavy metal from the late 1970s and early '80s and dress up in robes (and, in the case of Papa Emeritus, a skull mask and blood-red clerical getup) and sing songs about the devil and witchcraft. RIYL: Black Sabbath (especially the cocaine-ravaged mid-'70s Black Sabbath—think "Laguna Sunrise," not "Children of the Grave"), Mercyful Fate, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, "Rainbow in the Dark," and Blue Öyster Cult.

As marketing, it's brilliant—both shocking and schlocky, ridiculous in the best possible way, and designed to get people to ask, "Are these guys for real?" Even better, Ghost's over-the-top mystique is anchored, on Opus Eponymous, by a set of meticulous pop-metal anthems engineered for mainstream commercial success.

"The whole concept is supposed to be simultaneously crystal clear as well as diffuse and weird," says the Nameless Ghoul I interviewed last week. "If you're trying to do something that's sort of obscure, having the individual members of the band be profiled as a guy living in this apartment and listening to this and this and coming from this background, it makes you stray away from the actual concept. We are a concept band, a conceptual band. If you are less conceptual, it's not a problem, so we're not saying that any band that doesn't do this is doing it wrong, but it fits very well with the atmosphere and the tension that we want to create."

The question remains: Are they for real?

"It depends on how you see it," says Nameless Ghoul. "The message or the content of the lyrics, you can either approach it from a philosophical point of view, or an intellectual point of view, or you can take it figuratively—a lot of the lyrics are written from both ends. They are often portrayed as being about a witch, whereas the song is actually about superstition, or stupidity. The concept is meant to make you fantasize, or think, or reason—it's supposed to tickle you."

In the 1980s, lyrics like "Lucifer, we are here/For your praise, Evil One" and "Six, six, six/Evoke the king of hell" would have provoked genuine consternation from the moral police; after 20 years of extreme metal's gore-drenched brutality and blasphemy, Ghost's pop occultism seems considerably less threatening, and fun, even—an aesthetic reference back to bands like Venom and Angel Witch rather than any sort of personal ideology.

"Anybody that has a metal background, especially if you come from an extreme metal background, you don't really know where your fascination with the devil really started," the Nameless Ghoul says. "Myself, personally, I got into devil bands when I was, like, 11. Regardless of any rational or philosophical, intellectual use I might have upon the world, the devil in its most biblical, actual form will always have a very special place in my heart, and will always tickle me more than any reasonable philosophy or figure."

The elaborate presentation has worked so far. Ghost's first appearances in North America, on a brief headlining tour this winter, surpassed all expectations and built an underground buzz for the band's current position as the opening act for metal heavyweights Mastodon and Opeth on their spring co-headlining tour. Mastodon and Opeth are still the big draws, but a significant population of the metal cognoscenti is much more excited about Ghost's performances than seeing a pair of venerable veteran acts once again.

"I believe that we have a commercial potential," the Nameless Ghoul says. "I don't know what ‘big' is, but we still have the potential of becoming bigger than we are now, because we're bigger now than we were yesterday and so I know there's a progression. Where that ends or turns into a regression or comes to a halt, I cannot really say, but I know that we are on our way forward. I just know and hope that what we are doing has a future. Our aim is to make this as grandiose and entertaining and spectacular as possible."

The band has finished writing material for the follow-up to Opus Eponymous, which they expect to release before the end of the year.

"We have still done a record that I believe to be as confronting as the first, as paradoxical as the first, being ultramelodic and still heavy and death metal-ish weird," the Nameless Ghoul says. "Even though the concept of the band was pretty much hammered out when we did the first album, I think this album will be even more made to fit into a show, a live performance. As much as we like to do albums, as much as we personally believe in the album format and all that, we are a live act, to an extent that I think a lot of bands aren't. We have thought about that a lot more in creating this new record. ... We go around doing a show meant to inspire you to live in a Satanic rite for an hour. We don't really ask for much except for mental presence and attendance toward what we're doing. It is as real as you want it to be."