Swedish rockers GHOST has been one of the most divisive acts in metal since the band hit the ground running with its 2010 debut "Opus Eponymous". Arguments over the band's comic book-esque imagery and stage personas — mostly centered around the face-painted, Papal regalia wearing frontman initially known as Papa Emeritus — overwhelmed the merits of the group's actual songcraft for many metal fans. Off-stage disputes between Tobias Forge — the singer/songwriter cited as the creative voice behind the evolving masked personas — and other band members have served as an additional distraction from the focus on GHOST's actual music.
Forge has regrouped with what we assume to be a new group of musicians under the Nameless Ghouls banner. The latest GHOST record, titled "Prequelle", is unlikely to stop the band's critics from slinging mud. But for those that have been converts since day one, the album title is a misnomer, as the reality is that the new album is a culmination of GHOST's musical progression, and the increasingly grand-in-scale touring cycles Forge has led the band on.
The pop-coated gloss of the group's musical compositions has been GHOST's biggest aural trademark since the BLUE OYSTER CULT-turned-Satanic catchiness of their 2010 debut. Reflecting on that debut after listening to "Prequelle", the early days of GHOST seem almost quaint and unambitious comparatively. Subsequent records since — 2013's "Infestissumam" and 2015's "Meliora" — have seen GHOST add layers of arena-rock grandiosity to match the masked personas. It happened gradually and, at least to this listener's ear, the scope of GHOST's rock ambitions were not truly evident until its 2017 North American arena tour opening for IRON MAIDEN. Having been relegated to smaller theaters and clubs up to that point, the band's sets on that tour exposed that Forge's mission this entire time has been to become an heir apparent to the stadium-filling icons of yesteryear.
At its core, "Prequelle" is an album of arena-ready anthems through and through. Much like the band's humbler debut gave nods to the warmth of '70s heavy rock acts, "Prequelle" has plenty of moments that are reminiscent of its antecedents at the stadium level. Tracks such as lead single "Rats" and "Dance Macabre" come off as if someone pumped a bunch of steroids into KISS circa 1984. Though "Rats" does have a creepy crawly synth line lurking underneath, one could easily picture Paul Stanley's harmonized vocals propelling the scream-along sections. One could practically draw almost a straight line from "I Was Made For Lovin' You" to "Dance Macabre", though thankfully Forge — now performing under the stage moniker Cardinal Copa — doesn't attempt to hit the high notes. "Faith" is a mid-tempo stomper that shares a few musical through-lines with "Black Album"-era METALLICA, most notably "Sad But True".
Though "Prequelle" and previous albums share some musical lineage with hard-rock greats of the past, what has made GHOST special — and continues to make GHOST special — is the sheer reckless abandon with which Forge and the musicians he surrounds himself with throw themselves into crafting an aura of atmosphere with every musical line in the sand they draw. The aforementioned tracks would fall flat if GHOST didn't spend the rest of "Prequelle" diving headfirst into headier musical waters. Two instrumental tracks — "Miasma" and "Helvetesfönster" — are immersive and engrossing listens built around a flair for keyboard-driven prog-rock that would make STYX blush, especially as the saxophone kicks in at the end of "Miasma".
When a band encounters off-stage drama as GHOST has in the last couple of years, it's inevitable that some of the stress gets unleashed on the album that follows. Overall, Forge still keeps the group's newer music on the same eccentric plane as previous records. Though it is hard to think that there isn't a little steam being released as Forge shouts about "the moment of letting go" on album closing ballad "Life Eternal", and how "every day you feed me with hate / I grow stronger" on "See The Light".
GHOST's goal of becoming the next great arena-rock band was announced loudly with the scheduling of shows on its upcoming North American tour at Brooklyn's Barclays Center and L.A.'s the Forum, both of which are steeped in decades of rock history. "Prequelle" showcases a band that has the anthems and the aura to potentially make that happen.