Why you should care
Because death metal is chicken soup for the soul. With a side of METAL.
To fundamentalist religious groups, heavy metal has always been Public Enemy No. 1, the direct and clear work of Satan with its teen-pleasing mix of occult symbols, less than subtle lyrics and rumors of subliminal backward messages encouraging listeners to do, oh, all sorts of bad things. Beyond that, from Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult and Alice Cooper in the early ’70s through Marilyn Manson, from prog metal to thrash to speed metal, dark metal and death metal, it’s a musical genre deliberately designed to confuse and terrify parents.
While most metal bands play-act their Satanic influences and message for the sake of showmanship, sales and parental discomfort, a new subgenre arose out of Scandinavia in the ’90s and pushed the envelope a bit further. Band members and fans alike involved in what was known as black metal — a musical style marked by ridiculously fast guitars and guttural lyrics about the devil and such that were simply incomprehensible — were charged with not only burning down dozens of churches across Northern Europe but also murder and cannibalism. Unlike most typical American headbangers, they took it all maybe a little too seriously.
In a break from their contemporaries, they make sure you can understand what they’re saying. That’s where they get into trouble.
But in 2010, another kind of Satanic metal emerged out of Sweden, something so old it was new again. Ghost is in many ways a throwback to the theatricality of the 1970s, when Kiss concerts were marked by extravagant pyrotechnics and sci-fi cartoon outfits and Alice Cooper could be attacked onstage by a giant cyclops or a horde of puppet people. Like the Residents, the members of Ghost always appear in costumes and masks, and their identities remain a closely guarded secret. Lead vocalist Papa Emeritus (as he’s known) dresses in full papal finery, complete with towering miter and skull mask, while the other musicians, known only as Nameless Ghouls, wear identical costumes (like hooded robes) that conceal their faces. Ghost has worked very hard at building their own mythology, changing their musical approach, costumes and back story with each new release. The slash-and-burn guitars of more recent metal bands have been left by the wayside in favor of a much slower, more grandiose and heavily orchestrated sound, often employing a full chorus and often inspired by horror-film soundtracks. In fact, like Iron Maiden, White Zombie or The Misfits, their overall aesthetic is inspired as much by horror movies as anything else, musical or otherwise. And in another break from their contemporaries, they make sure you can understand what they’re saying. That’s where they get into trouble.
Every album, every song, every bit of visual material, every gesture associated with Ghost is a celebration of Satan, witchcraft, the horrors of religious belief or, um, Satan. But it’s all so comically obvious and over the top, so very flamboyant and hilariously pretentious (even more so than it had been with Sabbath or BOC) that it’s easy to believe band members when they claim it’s all tongue-in-cheek for them, all just part of the show. That hasn’t helped them much, especially in the States. Even though they’ve been nominated for multiple Grammys, you won’t find their albums in chain stores or hear them on commercial radio. Not with lyrics involving, say, “a nest of sinners kneeling down before his crown” and so forth. They couldn’t find a printing plant in the U.S. willing to reproduce the 16th-century woodcut they wanted to use as the cover of the special edition of their 2013 album, Infestissumam. And while attempting to record that same album in Nashville, they found it impossible to hire choral singers willing to sing their lyrics. Sometimes the group doesn’t even need to be seen or heard to cause problems. In Chicago, Catholic groups have pressured a metal-themed restaurant to remove the Ghost Burger from the menu, insisting the recipe’s use of a red wine reduction and the accompanying communion wafer were somehow sacrilegious.