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Sunday 7 June 2020

Opinion: Ghost - Ringing The Division Bell By Simon Black

Ghost – Ringing The Division Bell
  • Simon’s Favourite Fact #1 – all metalheads agree that metal music is absolutely and unequivocally the greatest form of music.
  • Simon’s Favourite Fact #2– no two metalheads can agree however, on which band is the greatest metal band.

But to be fair, we have so many to choose from these days. Literally hundreds of thousands of bands have come, gone or are still going since Black Sabbath kick-started this all a few days after I was born in February 1970 (beat that, Millennials). The genre has grown beyond all recognition, spawning many imitators and inspiring many innovators, taking the form into a myriad of sub-genres which even I would struggle to fully list and I write about this stuff almost every day. However, these two ‘facts’ have been a guiding mainstay of my view of our little sub-culture since I first got hooked as a spotty teenager in the mid 1980’s. The band Ghost however, have forced me to add Favourite Fact #3 to my list:

  • Once they have heard or seen them, all metalheads either totally love or totally hate Ghost…

But why?

The Marmite Of Metal

Love ‘em or loathe ‘em, you cannot fail to acknowledge that in the sometimes strange world of Heavy Metal and all points in a 360⁰ ever-expanding circle of sub-genre’s around this, the Swedish band Ghost are huge right now. In 10 years and four studio album’s they’ve gone from a viral phenomena on a defunct proto-social media site to an arena headlining global act whose periodic backstory video releases garner millions of hits, and whose periodic rebirth of the central character has gained an almost mystical air of frenzy.

Which is really strange, as at least half of you reading this absolutely fucking hate them. Just like marmite…

If you don’t hail from the United Kingdom, then the concept of Marmite might need a bit of explanation. Marmite is a bread spread made from yeast extract (which came about as a by-product of the brewing process), which people seem to either love or hate with no middle ground, but unlike the humble baked bean has not quite become as popular a product elsewhere in the world. The brand is owned by Unilever, who have pulled off an admirable, and uniquely British approach to marketing by making this division a key leg of the advertising campaigns, on the basis that half the population is a pretty good sales figure to aim for.

One Day, In A Field in Staffordshire, UK…

If you would bear with me for a while, I need to flash back to August 12th, 2017. It’s a Saturday, and we’re all at the Bloodstock Festival. It’s been quite a crazy one this year, on account that my best friend finally got himself organised enough to marry his partner of the last 14 years and has decided to have his stag do at Bloodstock. The Groom did me the honour of being the best man at my own wedding, almost exactly 12 years previously so I was truly honoured to return the favour. We’ve been friends a long, long time. I first met him in 1987, in a rock pub in our home town of Nottingham … And then again for the first time in the same pub a week later. This established three key facts about our friendship: that it’s a friendship fuelled by real ale and heavy metal music, that we’ve lasted a lot longer than that particular rock pub did, and that we can remember bugger all about the first 18 times we met (see points one and two).

It’s been a wild warm Bloodstock weekend, with the first dawning of what was going to likely to happen to him looming across the Groom to be’s consciousness on the Thursday afternoon when he received a slightly panicked call from me, currently unable to get off of work until the mid-afternoon and still on the wrong end of the three hour drive from South Wales to Catton Park. Fortunately in honour of the occasion, we had splashed out on VIP tickets, with a little less pressure on camping space. The conversation went something like this:

Me: “I’m going to be horrendously late, can you save me a space for my tent”

The Groom: “That’s OK you can share my tent it’s got 2 bed rooms and it’s already up”

Me: “Thanks for the offer, but I really need to have my own tent up”

The Groom: “Simon, for fuck’s sake, stop being so daft and middle class, my tent is fine”

Me: “You misunderstand mate, I need the tent. I have to have somewhere to store all the props…”

There is a stunned silence as he realises the implications. His two school boy mistakes are now crystal clear to him:

1) That he has asked me to be his Best Man,

2) That this festival lasts for another 3 whole days…

Having left him to sweat it out for the remainder of the Thursday relatively unharmed, the ante was well and truly upped the following morning. By this point in the weekend, he’s had all his clothes confiscated on the Friday, to be replaced with a mankini and a pair of antlers; had a damn good foam pieing from a dozen of his mates in identical T-Shirts fake beards and glasses in the Sophie tent, and is just about recovering from the 2 yards of ale whilst tied to the Lemmy’s Bar sign on the Saturday afternoon when the headliners Ghost arrive. Spritis are high at this point.

I had believe it or not, up to this point never seen or heard anything of Ghost. They’re at the apex of the Popestar Tour at this point, and have suddenly found themselves playing some pretty huge stages from a standing start a few short years before. Having only recently emerged from a relative musical coma where juggling a job that involves a lot of travel with the needs of a young family plus a house renovation project that would just not die, meant I genuinely knew nothing about them - apart from a few facts gleaned from friends during the course of the day. I had seen the announcements and a couple of photos on the run-up of course, and at that point written them off in my head as likely to be of the shouty-corpse-painty end of the spectrum. Although I would give them a chance as I did every headliner, I fully expected to sit the majority of their set out in the bar. I was also most bemused by my friend who is part of the compere team at the festival joking with me that I may well have been sitting alongside one or more members of the band as at this point their anonymity was still an intact thing.

And then came the show.

90 minutes of theatrics, ironic humour and some catchy and groovy 70’s metal inspired songs later and I was blown away. From the opening presence of synchronised Nameless Ghoul costumes, to the faux satanic pope in his Papa Emeritus III masked incarnation (and no shouty vocals), with more costume changes than a Lady Gaga gig, this ironic little band were one of the unexpected highlights of the weekend for me.

Then I discovered that not everyone shared my experience in the bar afterwards… I was surprised to find that for everyone who had enjoyed the show, someone else absolutely hated it, or disliked the band so much that they did not even bother to go and watch. I was gobsmacked. This wasn’t the ‘live and let live’ metal community I knew and loved. What the hell was going on here?

A number of retorts are regularly thrown out by the haters and I would like to dig into them a little deeper, as for me they don’t stack up sufficiently to be the cause of such an extreme reaction in and of themselves.

“They’re not metal”

Despite Tobias Forge’s more extreme (and ultimately unsuccessful) musical history in the years before, the overall sound of Ghost is undeniably much lighter than many acts in the genre, but is this enough of a reason for rejecting them? What is so light touch about Ghost’s sound that it is used as a stick to beat them with such ferocity? They have all the standard metal elements and tropes in the instrumental mix, so it’s difficult to see what in particular is causing offence:

  • Double bass drum sound – check. It started with jazz legend Louie Bellson, was adopted by Cream’s Ginger Baker in the 60’s, but it’s become the backbone of metal since the NWOBHM sound went global in the early 80’s.
  • Overdriven bass – check. Lemmy. That’s all you have to say here. 
  • Twin metalised guitars – check. Both the traditional NMOBHM rhythm and lead roles appear aplenty, but there’s plenty of the harmonised playing made most metal by Iron Maiden (although pinched from Wishbone Ash).
  • Spooky (and then later) progressive Keyboards – originally there for spooky effect on the early records, but more recently evolving into a far more complex and progressive instrumental sound. Keyboards can always be a touchy subject with some metal fans, despite the fact that every single metal band will probably at some point use them, if only for a cheesy intro track for the inevitable concept album or live intro track. The ‘spooky’ sound is harder to narrow downs with regard to origin, but the most effective user of the technique in recent years has to be Marilyn Manson. However the more progressive keyboard sound is found throughout metal’s history, and the closest album I can think of whose keyboard sound echoes what Ghost are doing now is what Tony Carey achieved on Rainbow’s Rising album. This is widely regarded as a stone cold classic, so why is that sound actively derided as a reason for disliking Ghost?
  • And finally the clean vocals. Tobias Forge had moderate underground success with the acts Repugnant and Crashdïet, both of which are much more full-on an extreme in their vocal styles, so the fact that he has chosen the more clean vocal sound for Ghost despite the black metal look catches most people out. It certainly did me, in my case positively. And he has a surprisingly good voice. Plenty of metal acts have clean vocals – from Ozzy Osbourne’s mournful wail and pretty much throughout the NWOBHM movement the clean vocal style predominated, and it wasn’t until Mötörhead inadvertently kicked off the birth of thrash and every extreme style since that the alternate vocal approach became part of the landscape. 

The overall effect is less metal than many acts from the genre, but play this to anyone not from the hardcore metal fraternity, and as far as they are concerned, Ghost sounds like a metal band – even if to me the net effect is more akin to Blue Oyster Cult. And there’s plenty of metalheads I know with BOC albums in their history, even if not necessarily in the most recent incarnation of their music collections. Is it the dichotomy of the deliberate contrast between the black metal look and the BOC sound that is the problem? Or is it the fact that there is an element of resentment in a band that is so much more commercially accessible has borrowed metal tropes without permission?

“Ghost are a joke band”

It is true that many metalheads take their music very seriously. For the not-we, I need to explain this. Many people you meet in this community have a past that gave them something to rebel against – be it a challenging family background, a hostile school environment, or a sibling with really shit taste in boy bands. Either way many of us have something of a “fuck you” attitude to most of the world, and have instead adopted a sub-culture where noisy music, excessive alcohol, outlandish clothing and body modification are the norm. But that does not mean we don’t like a joke from time to time, otherwise bands like Alestorm could not exist, produce half a dozen successful records and pack out their live shows. Going back to when I were a lad in Nottingham, local heroes Lawnmower Deth were there with their tongue firmly in someone else’s cheek and I defy any regular attendee at Bloodstock to not admit that if Evil Scarecrow show up again that they won’t be up there scuttling left and right to Crabulon, and loving every second of it. So why then, do I hear the constant refrain that many state that they can’t abide Ghost because they are a ‘joke band’, but would be quite happy to let their hair down with any or all three of the outright comedy Metal acts I listed above?

Ah, but some might say – it’s more subtle than that. Those bands are openly comic – Ghost are just laughing at us, not with us. A Cardinal (Copia) sin perhaps? Metal fans don’t like being ridiculed, but Marilyn Manson does it all the time in his lyrics and we lap it up and laud him for the cleverness in his lyricism.

I would argue that lyrically, as an openly satanic band Ghost are serious enough to incite fear, revulsion and anger from religious groups the world over, something that many metalheads would normally take as a badge of honour, but again there is an echo of a joke too far in here for some. Sometime in the 1970’s Monty Python’s chief songsmith Eric Idle did a Beatles mockumentary called The Ruttles (All You Need Is Cash). A key gag in this is the moment when the band inadvertently mock religion as John Lennon did and the public start buying their records just so they can burn them, and I can’t help but feel that Forge may well have seen this movie and be riffing this joke at our expense.

Metalheads particularly are vociferous about what we like and dislike at the best of times, despite many of us probably having come in via softer ‘gateway bands’ into this most extreme canon of music. Personally, it was the discovery of bands like the 80’s Trevor Rabin incarnation of prog stalwarts Yes that was the start of my slippery slope downhill, with my taste getting gradually more extreme as my curiosity kicked in. Ghost are clearly part of the metal world in the same way that Kiss are, wether you like it or not. However, from that one weekend at Bloodstock there was clearly a massive contrast between the ‘smell your own armpit and weep’ masculinity of Viking metal Amon Amarth on the Friday night, with the dandy in a tux we got in the second Act of Ghost’s show on the Saturday night. However, this kind of contrast is precisely what I love about the whole genre. Why can’t we just live and let live the way I do to bands that don’t necessarily rock my boat, but whom I’m happy to tolerate as part of the pantheon of our wider family? Why do about half of us feel so strongly about Ghost, that rather than just walk away saying “Not for me”, that they feel so riled by them that they have to criticise them with a level of vitriol I see recently on political commentary sites on Social Media.

“Why Pretend to Change Singers?”

Tobias Forge had only recently been unmasked as a result of former bandmates undertaking a legal challenge at the point when the cash started rolling in. However, at this point with the Popestar tour in full swing although the press was full of speculation on this subject, the man himself had yet to actually come out and confirm that he was the voice behind the mask(s) in Ghost. This didn’t happen until after the tour ended, when Forge confessed to being “The man behind the mask in Ghost” on a Swedish Radio programme. In Swedish, so not many picked up on this. This means for the best part of a decade, no-one really knew who Ghost were, and certainly very few suspected that the whole thing was the vision of one man, let alone that this man had written and recorded much of the musical output on his own, particularly on later releases.

Up to this point we had had three different visible incarnations of Papa Emeritus – all having very different personas on stage, although the voice is clearly the same man throughout. As time has gone on, the changeovers between these characters have become an essential part of the end of the touring cycle. Personally, I think all the theatrics around this are absolutely spot on. It allows Ghost to create an element of mystique and backstory about what the hell they are all about, but some feel that again the piss is being mightily taken. I can see where they are coming from on this – a lot of contemporary bands were not happy when This Is Spinal Tap was released and this revolving door of Papa’s and Cardinals does feel a bit like the Tap exploding drummer gag writ large. Keeping a stable line up is the bane of any band and always seems to be exacerbated when success and filthy lucre come into the equation, but actively poking fun at this seems to really rile many people. Especially when they find out that Forge is not only every Ghost front-character to date, but also the sole song-writer and the main musician on the majority of studio recordings.

“They’ve Sold Out”

Metalheads can be a bit frustrating when it comes to success – “love ‘em when they are obscure, hate them when that becomes successful” is not an unusual phenomena. You would think that fans would be happy when an act they supported when they were underground are now headlining arenas, but this kind of retort is actually quite a common one. Part of this is the resentment is I suspect, borne out of a twinge of jealousy that either the band has got more successful than their own (and many of us do or have played in bands) or that we can’t rub shoulders after a gig in the way that might have happened in the past. However I would argue that Ghost have never done that. Right from the earliest live shows in the tiniest of venues, the band had the masks, the characters and the mystique, and of course the anonymity. They played those tiny shows like they were headlining Wembley, and back then everyone loved them for it. So why take umbrage when they are successful?

If you level the accusation of commercialism, you have to be consistent with that, and in contrast you won’t see most metalheads levelling that accusation at Iron Maiden – who are possibly the most commercially successful metal band in the world who have done it by not following the rules. They started from nowhere, built a brand, built a following, built the merchandising but frequently I here fans the same people praising Maiden for trail-blazing giving Ghost a hard time for being successful. Admittedly, Ghost have taken this to another level, and I can’t ever see Maiden releasing a sex toy, but at one point you could buy a Papa Emeritus dildo from the band’s merchandise web page (although Marilyn Manson and Rammstein have also done this).

“What’s the Pope thing all about?”

From the get go, Ghost’s emblem has been the faux Satanic pope and his masked band of Nameless Ghouls. Metalheads may say they hate this kind of parody, and point at the light sound and the make-up, but I bet half of them got here via bands like Kiss. Actually Simmons/Stanley/Criss and Frehley are an interesting point of comparison, as although their names were known through the music publishing, their faces weren’t until the early 80’s. Fans went wild back in the day trying to find out what they looked like without their make-up, as it would seem black and white grease paint is surprisingly difficult to see through. What seems to rile here though are the fact that Ghost are fully masked by prosthetics. Each of the Papa’s (and Cardinal) has been a latex full head mask with added make up and never seen out of character (rather than being an ordinary Joe with a bit of corpse paint), and even going so far as to indicate that all tracks were written by a Nameless Ghouls in the music publishing. The not knowing seemed to infuriate people even more, unless like me, they just loved the outrageousness of it.

In the most recent Prequelle album cycle despite the fact that Forge has been ummasked, Ghost have kept up the mystique – first teasing the new front man Cardinal Copia, then presenting a complex back story of Papa Nihil. All of which seemed to lead up to the revelation of a sixties incarnation of Ghost that we somehow all missed for no other reason than to launch the Seven Inches of Satanic Panic single late last year.

However, the deriders do seem to feel that keeping up the act is now a pointless endeavour. The loss of anonymity actually improved their standing for me. To discover that this entire concept, sound, vision and backstory was pretty much the work of one man, who wrote and recorded almost everything apart from the drums and some of the more complex keyboard parts himself only added to the mystique for me.

Hate sells, but who’s buying?

So if everything that I’ve heard listed as a reason for disliking Ghost has a reasonable counterargument, why does this band create such extremes of response from us collectively? Is it just the fact that the culmination of all these elements pisses some off, whilst ticking all the boxes of the others? The most important fact here is that with two clear groups of thought, Ghost cannot fail but to continue to grow. No other band seems to have been able to create this snowball effect. The half that love them are quick to defend, and the half that hate help keep them in the public eye, proving once and for all that there is no such things as bad publicity in music.

Historical Parallels - Kiss v. Aerosmith in 1970’s America

If you were a hard-rock inclined teenager growing up in the mid-1970’s in America, the two biggest bands on the planet were Aerosmith and Kiss. This was a mutually exclusive fandom back then, and people were fans of either one or the other. One half loved the theatre and OTT shows of Kiss, with the added mystique of the masked make-up, the others preferred the down and dirty rock’n’roll ethos of Aerosmith. Personally, I love this era of output of them both, but when back-packing around the States in 1989 and posting back every scarce bit of vinyl I could get from their rare-as-rocking-horse droppings back catalogue to the UK, I frequently elicited reactions of shock, surprise and incredulity from the people I met that I could follow genuinely both bands.

This kind of deep-grained rivalry culturally was hard for us to get our heads round here in the UK back then. The closest parallel I can give would be for me to have stood up in a pub in Nottingham and told people that I was simultaneously a fan of both Nottingham Forest (Yay!) and Derby County (Boo!). That would not have given me a reaction as polite as incredulity (unless Incredulity Inc. happened to manufacture pint pub glasses, one of which would have almost certainly ended up broken and protruding from my face). This kind of extreme divisive reaction is exactly what Ghost bring out in people right now.

The Ringing of the Division Bell Had Begun

The world is having one of those periodic wobble moments. Again, please indulge me on this, as it’s a lengthy, but contextually important point.

Even before the Coronavirus pandemic broke, as a species we were going through one of those genuine moments of cultural transformation that seem to come along every couple of centuries. Technology enabled transformation has been taking a dump in the established order for a few years now, but in recent years this kind of disruption has really gone up a gear. As Neil Gibb wrote in his insightful book The Participation Revolution, “The global financial crisis was the explosion in the old system that blew cracks into its foundations, cracks that have spread and spread”. The world is changing fast, with established business and social models being turned upside down, with new economic players and platforms coming out of nowhere and rocking the established economics of the age. Many of the companies storming up the Global stock markets did not exist ten or even five years ago, and this change is proving disturbing for many.

These changeovers are hard to live through. An old order is dying, a new one is being born and many people are caught in the crossover, with no certainty on what the future holds. Uncertainty leads to fear, and fear causes humans to lash out, to look backwards, not forwards because our security blanket has been ripped out from under us and we can’t necessarily see the future and our place in it yet. This is deeply unsettling to the human psyche, whose usual response to this sort of thing is to throw our political teddies out of the pram, leave global trade bodies and elect self-serving populists who are very good at playing on people’s fears, but when it comes to a real crisis about as much use as a chocolate teapot.

Things will settle down, new patterns will emerge, and these divisive idiots will be held to account, because this has all happened before - at least twice that I can think of. First when the Renaissance, and the all important trade ships bearing goods from afar that brought it turned the feudal world on its head, toppling the established order of Kings and Lords replacing it with the age of commerce. Then again more recently when the Industrial Revolution replaced that model with the age of manufacturing. People can’t see the future, so they fight it, but history will remember those fighting it now as well as it did the Luddites smashing machines in the Midlands not realising that factories would bring replacements for the jobs they had lost. What we are seeing now is the same thing happening now, only with an app…

As music fans first and foremost, we have all experienced this first hand. Most of us have some form of music collection, whether it be a pile of vinyl, a stack of CD’s or a hard drive full of MP3’s (or if you are an old fart like me, all three), but in the metal community we are unusual in that many of us still buy these things. The vast majority of music is now consumed via streaming platforms with a subscription-based model, which is great for the content providers but not so great for the artists, unless you are lucky enough to be Ed Sheeran and getting millions of plays a day.

Right now, bands are caught in the changeover and have not fully worked out how to survive the transition, so have been increasingly dependent on live shows and the all-important merchandise to keep functioning, and bless us we help them keep going. And bands will work this out. Again take Iron Maiden – from the get go, they worked out that there was far more money to be made out of almost every aspect of their activities that they could control, compared to the one thing they could not – the record label who paid royalties as a pittance. When you make a fortune out of managing your marketing and brand, then you don’t really need the label and they and the media sales become secondary, and I suspect the same thing will happen in time to both the changes streaming has brought and the Global economy as a whole as it goes through a readjustment. Coronavirus by the way, has been a catalyst for this fire of change like a well-aimed Molotov cocktail. We can see the beginnings of that reinvention with the launch of live stream shows, which the metal bands have embraced fully.

So what has this to do with Ghost? Well, for the last ten years Ghost’s approach has been that of the augur of doom, to promote Satanism and the return of the Antichrist as the world spirals downhill. Forge’s timing is impeccable, and he has played brilliantly on this background of political uncertainty and societal transformation. Like Brexit, Trump and many others, he has also effectively split opinion and our community in half. But at least it’s in the name of fun.

Ghost echoes the politics of the moment, and that’s an absolutely great way to build a Global brand in an uncertain future.

In Summary….

So, have I nailed down why Ghost are so divisive? Probably not.

Forge has managed to pull together a whole combination of ingredients that touch peoples nerves in either a positive or negative way, and I suspect that the sheer cumulative effect of so many of these in one hit is why people polarise in either direction. Equally he is doing this at a time when massive societal upheaval and uncertainty is encouraging people to pick sides in a more black and white way than perhaps they might have done in calmer times. Either way, a marmite marketing strategy where 50% of the market is your target segment is an ambitious growth strategy and one that seems to be working.

So I’m not afraid to say that I absolutely love Ghost.

But, I absolutely loathe marmite…

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