Let’s step into a time machine and head back into the past. It’s 1347, and the Plague is about to hit its peak fatality rate in mainland Europe. Villagers are collapsing to their untimely deaths left, right and centre, their corpses decomposed and unrecognisable as the unmistakable stench of death commands your nasal passage like a hand puppeteer working his magic. Now, ask yourself this: how would all of that sound if someone added music to the madness? Enter Cardinal Copia, the newly elected leader of Ghost, and a man who now carries the weight of the entire church upon his shoulders. No pressure, right? Copia succeeds the longstanding Emeritus bloodline, replacing the deceased Papa Emeritus III earlier this year under the guidance of his mentor Papa Nihil, as well as the mystical Sister Imperator. His induction into the church was well-documented by Ghost, a band who have spent the best part of ten years working their way towards the upper echelons of hard rock and heavy metal with their entrancing compositions, all of which have been helmed by real life band leader Tobias Forge (a man who is now unafraid to reveal his own identity to the world). There have been setbacks – some legal, some personal – but none of this has managed to stop the Swedes from moving onwards and upwards with each collection of music they share.

On new album (read: psalm) Prequelle, Forge has once again managed to steer Ghost’s ship away from stormy waters and into new territory as he and his Nameless Ghouls embrace a new lease of life. A life which, as we come to discover, stands as much chance of being eternal as it does falling victim to disease-ridden rodents. It’s an album which presents us with an insight into the most horrific aspects of the Plague, subsequently using it as grounds for Cardinal Copia’s own observations as he attempts to fill the extremely big shoes of his predecessors. It takes a little while for us to finally meet Copia, though, with opening hymn Ashes introducing us to a serene children’s choir first. “Ring-a-ring o’ roses” sing the children ever so subtly, providing haunting undertones which border on the spine chilling. It’s not until an explosion of percussion and guitars enters the frame that we realise the severity of proceedings, allowing for an eerie synth melody to up the bombast and increase the lingering sense of fear. Rats is the first proper composition on Prequelle, with the lead single sounding as strong as ever once Cardinal Copia finally loses his vocal virginity. “In times of turmoil, in times like these” he sings, introducing the Plague alongside a sublime fusion of crisp radio-ready tones. The riffs and rhythms are tight, they hit hard and they mean business. “Them rats…” snarls Copia during the makeshift chorus, referencing the widespread emergence of the rodent. He disguises this recognition within a papal declaration: “Now all your loved ones and your kin will suffer punishments beneath the wrath of god”, sounding incredibly menacing in his delivery. The final riff passage in Rats is an absolute monster, chugging to the max and inciting bouts of destruction. It sounds like a musical mirror to the Plague and all of its fatality: evil, overpowering and fear-inducing. Forge is only one full song into his new character, but he’s already given him more life and oomph than the previous Papa’s combined.

Faith is the first instance on Prequelle that all is most definitely not well, inciting this in dizzyingly heavy fashion from the word go. Menacing guitars take control and never let go, much like the rodents who control the streets as they infect at random. The intertwining of guitars in two different pitches works extremely well here, adding contrast to a song which some may say features a little bit too much production in the vocal department (this is an unfortunate constant throughout Prequelle). “I am all eyes, I am all ears” proclaims Copia during the chorus, his vocals underpinned by continuously heavy instrumental combinations. “Faith! Is! Mine!” he later growls, a line which may hint at the Cardinal’s future plans. This is all speculation, though, as Copia’s true intentions remain entirely at the behest of the his mentor, Papa Nihil. Instrumentally, Faith is incredibly tight, its gnarly guitar solos complementing the power-hungry Copia particularly well. The music – complete with growls and an evil cackle – makes you lust for more, much like Copia lusts for total power. A magnificent and gorgeous cavalcade of church organs bring Faith to an end, segueing into the slower See the Light. Don’t let its lack of pace and use of a cheesy shaker fool you, though, because See the Light is one of Prequelle’s sleeping giants. Every Ghost album has one (take Meliora’s He Is as one example), serving as a track which comes back to haunt you with its sheer beauty further down the line. “Many a sin I have witnessed, many a rat I have befriended” proclaims Copia during the first half of this hymn, alluding to his direct involvement in the Plague. He further uses this as an opportunity to attach a double meaning to his lyrics (“of all the demons I have known, none compare to you”), hinting at Forge’s personal troubles ever so slightly. See the Light’s chorus is one of many radio-ready rock moments on Prequelle, with Copia repeatedly reminding the listener that they must consume him in order to see the light. The entire song centres on this one lyric, and quite cleverly so as it remains ingrained within your mind much like a rodent tooth to the skull. The latter half of the track builds itself up to a point where all of its separate layers warrant careful analysis (there’s a lot going on), particularly once a Keytar solo enters the frame. There’s a distinct audible difference between the Keytar and a regular synthesiser, and this much is evident once you pay careful attention See the Light’s underlying instrumental patterns.

(c) Mikael Eriksson

(c) Mikael Eriksson

It’s on Miasma that Prequelle experiences a turning point. Instrumental works have been a staple in the world of Ghost since day one, but never have they come as expansive and grandiose as this. Clocking in at over five minutes, it’s an absolute stalwart of a track which builds on an initial synth line and piles on the layers by the minute. Although the track centres heavily on rocking, Iron Maiden-esque rhythms, it’s evident that the synth lies at its core and allows it to progress with more fluidity and fervour. There are some incredibly powerful instrumental constructions on Miasma, which allow it to up the pace before eventually breaking through on the three minute mark. It’s this sudden jolt in speed which pushes the track into new territory, one which is spearheaded by an absolutely amazing saxophone solo a la Kenny G. It comes quite out of the blue, but once it’s settled it sounds like it was made for Miasma. You could even suggest that whole of Miasma builds up the way it does solely to support the saxophone. The latter half of the track is immense, fast and heavy; cataclysmic and destructive in its impact. Conceptually, it may link to the Plague reaching its peak, becoming far more fatal than before. Miasma represents a snapshot of the terror unfolding on village streets, depicting sheer fear through bombastic music. This aforementioned terror is further represented on album highlight Dance Macabre, a song about one’s final hours before the Plague comes fatally knocking. Legend has it that men would frequent brothels in their final hours for one last round of pleasure, before staggering out onto the streets and collapsing to their deaths. “Something in your eyes said it could be the last time before it’s over” sings Copia ahead of the catchiest chorus Ghost have ever produced. It’s essentially an ABBA song laced with heavy guitars and a blinding solo, opening on a powerful stomp of percussion and power chords before the synth enters like an enormous battering ram of 80s pomposity. For a song which covers a topic as grim as the Plague, it’s strangely uplifting. It’s the kind of song which gets you pumping your fists into the air, putting a smile on your face in the process. Dance Macabre is the final countdown to widespread fatality, and it is without a shadow of a doubt the biggest song which Ghost have ever produced. Once it hits the European festival stages this summer, you’d be damned to ignore its menacing power.

Pro Memoria‘s opening salvo of stirring strings sonically represents the opening of heaven’s gates, serving as a beautiful introduction to one of Prequelle’s slower tracks. They repeat and die down with each crescendo, finally spiralling into pure and unadulterated beauty the fourth time round. The grand piano takes subtle control on this track, something which Ghost have not done enough of in the past. Pro Memoria is the first hymn on Prequelle to make explicit reference to Lucifer (“Lucifer, whispering silently into your mind”), with Cardinal Copia claiming that he stands tall and invincible. It’s clear that Copia admires Lucifer much like his predecessors did, hinting more so at this by poking fun at Jesus Christ and his disciples (“ain’t that right, sweet St. Peter?”). The focus on Pro Memoria is most definitely the importance of dying, as well as Copia’s interest in passing on into the arms of Lucifer. “Don’t you forget about dying, don’t you forget about your friend Death” he sings during the chorus (one which this song centres on repeatedly), ensuring that the listener doesn’t forget that one day they, too, will die. A church choir subsequently brings Pro Memoria to a hypnotic close. Earworm Witch Image is the third big radio rock banger on Prequelle, akin to Rats and Dance Macabre. It’s essentially just a well-grounded, simple rock song which utilises catchy solos and gritty guitar tones to hammer home its stadium-ready effectiveness. Copia makes another reference to the Plague here as he sings of rotting flesh (“someone’s flesh is rotting tonight”), although this time round it also sounds as if he’s addressing himself from a different point of view. “You have never stood this close to where you wanted to be” he declares, hinting towards the rumours that Copia will one day become a Papa, should his greatest desires become reality. It’s obvious that he still needs to earn his stripes from the masterful Papa Nihil, but if Prequelle’s timeline goes to plan then Witch Image could be the moment that Copia questions his own capabilities before ascending into Papadom.

Penultimate track Helvetesfonster (Swedish for ‘windows of Hell’) is the second lengthy instrumental on the album, clocking in at just under six minutes. The first half of the track features an abundance of woodwind instruments, which sync nicely with an arpeggiating piano and some underlying brass. This brass builds ups the suspense well, although it’s safe to say it takes a while for Helvetesfonster to truly hit its peak. It’s not until the track switches to a 3/4 time signature that its qualities come to life, particularly by means of a waltzed call and response section between jumpy pianos and a synth line. The oom pah pah rhythm remains a constant, eventually allowing for the synth to eradicate all signs of prior woodwind instruments. Conceptually, the initial woodwind instrument could represent heaven, with the synth taking on the role of hell as it takes over the song and absorbs all. There’s also space for a lute towards the end, which is quite a surprising addition to the band’s instrumental itinerary. Helvetesfonster is the most instrumentally adventurous song which Ghost have ever shared with the world, representing a very clear sonic journey in the process. There is nothing that Ghost’s have done previously which comes close to it, leading into album finale Life Eternal with great intrigue, mystery and some haunting church bells. “Can you hear me say your name forever? Can you see me longing for you forever? Would you let me touch your soul forever? Can you feel me longing for you forever?” asks Copia on Life Eternal’s opening two lines, making prominent use of the word forever and hinting at eternity in the process. “This is the moment of just letting go” he continues as organs and a small choir underpin his musings with utmost serenity. Copia sounds nostalgic and pensive on Life Eternal, perhaps looking back on his early days as he prepares for a bigger conquest. There’s a big finale in store for Prequelle here, one which is perfectly suited to raising lighters in the air at one of their mesmerising live shows. A choir partakes in a bout of call and response which also centres on the word “forever”, and it’s frankly quite stunning. The beauty which has been injected into this track is far and beyond anything Ghost have done in the past, even if it doesn’t measure up to the likes of the epic Monstrance Clock or Deus in Absentia. Life Eternal is more serene than the former two, focussing on beauty as opposed to power. It’s about letting go and accepting that the worst has already happened, and that it’s only going to get easier from now on. “If you have life eternal…” serves as the final line on the album, leaving Prequelle out in the open and on a relatively vague cliffhanger.

If Prequelle has made anything evident, then it’s that this is no longer the band who emerged on the doom-laden Opus Eponymous eight years ago. This is no longer the band who went through life shrouded in mystery (both on and offstage), and it most definitely isn’t the band that people envisioned it would become in this day and age. Forge’s meticulously crafted conceptual thread is still there, but everything else has changed. Ghost have – in the space of not even a decade – gone from an unassumingly creepy Swedish band to one of the biggest groups on the planet. Not that this should come as too much of a surprise, though; in fact, their rapid rise to prominence was inevitable from the moment the haunting Year Zero saw the light of day in 2013. Its accompanying album, the grisly Infestissumam, helped them reach higher heights in Europe, essentially elevating them to household name status within the heavy music community. That was the first major stepping stone for Tobias Forge’s project, eventually moving on to the majestic Meliora in 2015 and utilising that record as a means of conquering the final piece in the geographic puzzle: the United States. With America finally in the palm of Forge’s hands, Ghost moved on to Prequelle, an album which will undoubtedly send them into the largest stadiums, arenas and amphitheaters which this planet has to offer. The record is a grandiose mission statement from start to finish, taking on a grim concept and embedding it within the already expansive conceptual world of Ghost with little difficulty. There are highlights across the whole album, whether it be stadium-ready anthems (Rats, Dance Macabre, Witch Image), slow-burning epics (See the Light, Pro Memoria, Life Eternal), or bombastic, headbang worthy pit starters (Faith, Miasma). There is hardly a dull moment on Prequelle. Then again, there was hardly a dull moment during the Plague either. Where this leaves Cardinal Copia within the clergy remains to be seen, but if he continues to deliver music of this power then it shouldn’t be too long until he becomes a Papa. Prequelle is due 1 June via Loma Vista/Spinefarm.

 

9/10