Last month, Swedish pop-metal band Ghost presented their very first Billboard Hot 100 hit with “Mary On A Cross,” a previously obscure B-side from a 2019 7in. As you might have guessed, TikTok and stranger things were involved. Unlike Kate Bush and Metallica, whose respective chart climbs this year were fueled by needle drops, Ghost rose on the back of a fan-made clip featuring scenes from the Netflix series. Virality did its thing, and soon “Mary On A Cross” was all over TikTok, soundtrack videos that had nothing to do with either stranger things or Ghost. (“Mary On A Cross” is not on the list below; it’s not very good.)
Days after Ghost landed on the Hot 100, their corpse-painted leader Papa Emeritus IV (born Tobias Forge) threw the first pitch during a White Sox game for some reason. This level of ubiquity wasn’t entirely sudden – “Call Me Little Sunshine” had also just become their fifth US Mainstream Rock chart – but for fans of the band’s early work, their rise felt deeply strange.
Ghost’s emergence in the early 2010s was fun and mysterious in ways that probably wouldn’t have been had the social media landscape been what it is today. Most early fans found their music through the Band Of The Week (RIP) blog run by Darkthrone’s Fenriz, an unlikely but revered tastemaker on Blogspot-era internet metal. No one knew who Papa Emeritus was, or any of the Nameless Ghouls who would eventually join him on guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards – and, at least initially, no one seemed to be trying so hard to figure it out. This sense of mystery shines through in the music, which was decidedly satanic in its content but infectious in its sound. We had all heard hymns to the devil sung in a piercing howl by his blood-soaked emissaries, but what was the deal with these guys who looked like they were raised on ABBA? Ghost’s stellar debut album, cleverly titled Eponymous albumwere widely compared to Mercyful Fate and Blue Öyster Cult, but were even more generous with their sweet hooks than those bands.
After Eponymous album, Ghost quickly grew from an underground oddity to a growing dominant force. They signed with a subsidiary of a major label for their second album, Infestisumam, and the once terse Forge began doing interviews and on-stage banter that leaned into his vaudevillian shtick. (There is now a rich Ghost lore involving the death and subsequent replacement of each of the band’s leaders, all of whom are played by Forge.) Their sound has also changed to something both more pop and more theatrical. If the first album felt a bit like Mercyful Fate, Ghost would end up looking more like a Broadway musical loosely based on Mercyful Fate’s career.
Some of Ghost’s earliest fans – those who found them through Fenriz – fell away, to be replaced by waves and waves of newcomers who clung to their larger-than-life image and unabashed thirst for fame from the heavy metal. Full disclosure: I’m one of those early fans, though I’ve found something to like in nearly every album the band has made since. Opus. (This list could easily include all the songs on Opus. Not quite.) Their work doesn’t always resonate with me, but I’m deeply grateful to have them with me. They’re a metal band with a ruthless pop sensibility and twisted take on genre iconography, and the way they force those two things to collide is almost always compelling.