How Swedish band Ghost conquered heavy metal and the charts

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On stage at Honda Center Arena in Anaheim, Tobias Forge is not himself.

Instead, he’s Papa Emeritus IV, frontman of Swedish metal band Ghost, singing behind a latex mask and corpse paint, dressed in nun garb or bat wings.

His character is the demonic pope of Ghost, preaching war and plague like a prophet of doom amid heavy guitar riffs and snappy pop melodies. Some lyrics are more prescient than fantastic, from the warning of “contagious, disease-spreading beliefs” on 2018 song “Rats” to the band’s new album “Impera,” which denounces building an empire in time for the future. brutal invasion of Ukraine by Russia.

Forge says he is simply an observer of history and “the circularity of things”, as destructive human impulses repeat themselves catastrophically through the centuries. “Flags, pandemics, flus and dictators come and go,” he says happily. “Empires come and go. It’s always in circles, because at the end of the day, we’re dealing with humans.

Forge, 41, is out of costume and sipping coffee at his West Hollywood hotel after a night of hard rock performances, complete with pyro eruptions and a large stage meant to convey gothic arches and ominous stained glass. Offstage, Forge is less explosive, wearing a treasured T-shirt from the 1988 Candlemass tour, his light auburn hair cropped and swept up. It’s a thoughtful and quick interview with a joke, a family man with a wife and fraternal twins in Stockholm. The previous night’s concert in Orange County was the latest leg of a co-headlining tour with Danish band Volbeat, intended as a prelude to the March 11 release of the band’s fifth album, ” Impera”.

During pre-tour rehearsals, Forge had “a very mild case” of the Omicron virus. Then the other eight members of the touring band tested positive, along with four crew members. “The whole band got it at once, so we just had COVID rehearsals,” he says. The tour went according to plan and Ghost will be back in the US later this year.

“The lyrics don’t talk about God. They’re about the man,” says Tobias Forge of Ghost, aka Papa Emeritus.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

The band’s latest record, 2018’s “Prequelle,” was nominated for a Grammy Award for Rock Album and reached No. 3 on Billboard’s Top 200. The band counts Metallica and Dave Grohl among its high-profile fans and attracts a multi-generational rock audience, from kids in baby pope outfits to older fanatics nostalgic for ’70s shock rock.

“Ghost has a diverse following, which I like to see, especially for metal,” says Sammi Chichester, editor of Revolver Magazine, a keen observer of the metal scene.

Forge is able to find pop hooks even as he exploits his own low expectations for humanity. Due to this catchiness, Ghost has been controversial among some extreme metal tastemakers. “It’s a routine topic – metalheads love to argue,” laughs Chichester.

The music tends to be more engaging than depressing, despite the disturbing religious imagery.

“The lyrics don’t talk about God. They’re about the man,” Forge says. “We are, ultimately, some sort of occult, pop, satanic rock ‘n’ roll band meant to entertain a bunch of people who are already broke with that stuff.”

Any discussion with Forge quickly reveals him as a pop music obsessive, as he casually references Leonard Cohen, the Bangles and the primal weirdness of the Shaggs. Not your typical metal high priest. “In my teens, I was completely a death metal/black metal person in action and in message,” he says. “But I always listened to a lot of other stuff. And that came to fruition in the music that I was writing.

Ghost was created in 2006 with Forge’s recording of a track called “Stand by Him”, built on a slippery metal riff and firmly rooted in Scandinavian black metal. The music that followed rarely deviated from a rumbling metallic core, but showed surprising flourishes early on, from busy keyboard melodies to delicate acoustic guitar.

The group arrived with a fully formed image that took on a demonic and bizarre take on Catholic tradition, accented with gothic flair and comedy. Forge stood on the mic as a series of demonic popes called Papa Emeritus (Nos. I-IV), in flamboyant papal garb, with a band of musicians called Nameless Ghouls in silver masks. (Ghouls now spawn in what look like gas masks from a dystopian future.)

Forge, who is the only consistent member of the group, kept his identity hidden behind face paint and a pseudonym until he had to reveal his real name during an unsuccessful 2017 lawsuit by four former Ghost members for salary arrears.

“Impera” was recorded last spring and summer, after the initial plan to work with an American producer in the United States was canceled as the coronavirus crisis dragged on. Instead, Forge reunited with Swedish producer Klas Åhlund (Ghost collaborator on 2015’s “Meliora”), and he took his time composing new songs.

He sketched out a melody for the album’s closest, a nearly seven-minute progressive epic titled “Respite on the Spitalfields”, on the small electric piano in his daughter’s bedroom. “Twenties” emerged as a frenzied chronicle of greed and oppression, in the form of a “demagogue cult leader speaking to his followers with utter contempt,” he says. The sly, catchy ’80s rock of “Griftwood” was inspired by former Vice President Mike Pence and leaders who use the Bible as a means to gain political power.

The album also arrives as a pair of hit TV series – ‘Cobra Kai’ and ‘Peacemaker’ – reintroduced an earlier generation of pop-metal to the masses, with a prominent use of 80s hits by people like Twisted Sister, Faster Pussycat, Hanoi Rocks, Ratt, Mötley Crüe, Scorpions and Def Leppard.

Ghost is not a throwback to the hair-metal era but shares a taste for hooks and melodrama. Forge hasn’t seen “Peacemaker” but has spent some free time at his home in Sweden watching “Cobra Kai” with his teenage daughter. “This series is a slam-dunk,” he says of the show, which continues the story of the “Karate Kid” movies. “And the music is awesome.”

Ghost’s brain admits nostalgia for what was commonly called “album-oriented rock,” the mainstream rock category embodied by Journey, Foreigner, Boston, and other FM radio stars of the 70s and 80s. am a big fan of AOR bands,” Forge says, describing the genre as “clever divorce rock played by older men with mustaches who’ve been through their lives a bit.”

Forge was raised in Linköping, Sweden by a single mother and indoctrinated into rock music early, by a brother 13 years her senior. Before he was 10, Forge bought English and German rock magazines he couldn’t read and absorbed as much metal, punk and classic rock as he could.

As a teenager, his tastes became even darker and more extreme as he discovered underground metal from Europe and America – then turned away from anything new to the genre after 1994, when he felt things were getting too polished, spoiling the creepy lo-fi sound and picture he loved.

As Ghost himself grows more sophisticated in his sound and approach, Forge knows some longtime fans want him to return to the band’s original recipe. Forge understands the sentiment and admits he would love nothing more than to produce new albums from bands from his youth so he can force them back to an earlier sound.

He says he wants to satisfy the fans while challenging them. “I handle it professionally in one way, and as a fan in another.”

Forge fully appreciates the intense feelings a music fan can have about a recording artist. Evolution is not always welcome.

“It has a lot to do with the type of personalities that are drawn to the world we’ve been talking about: metal, hardcore, comics, sci-fi – it’s a retreat, a safe place of order, organization, knowledge “It’s the world you hide in after school. And now there’s someone trying to…evolve? It’s disruptive.”

“It’s neither good nor bad. The future is what we don’t know, as much as it hurts.

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About Eileen W. Sudduth

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