Even before Ghost took stage, people started chanting for the band, which was interesting considering this is the outfit's first big tour. But that enthusiasm was rewarded when the strains of "Masked Ball" by Jocelyn Pook came over the P.A., with its reversed Romanian words adding just an extra dimension of the darkly otherworldly. Five robed figures with wearing face masks strode into view from stage left, and when each had taken his place with an instrument, the scene became flooded with a red light.
Just then, Papa Emeritus emerged from the back of the stage with a miter adorned with an upside down cross wrapped with a letter "G" near the bottom. The thurible was a nice touch. Someone at the front of the stage was tearing pages out of what looked like the Bible and throwing them to the ground. The show had yet to start, and already, it began leaving a strong impression.
Opening with "Con Clavi Con Dio," Ghost defied easy comparison. Musically, it recalled some kind of '70s hard-prog-rock band, and Papa Emeritus even had a surprisingly melodious, and strong, voice. But the raw power of the performance pushed it into another realm.
Some metal bands get by just being loud and aggressive, but there was something graceful yet forceful about what Ghost was doing. Sure, the visuals are a gimmick meant to add to the atmosphere of the show in a compelling way, but the music and the performance of it spoke for itself.
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"Elizabeth" was a little cartoonish with harmonies vaguely reminiscent to something Journey might have done in the early '80s, but the guitar work and rhythms were jagged enough that you forgave any hint of cheese. When the song ended, Emeritus asked, "Are you ready to meet eye-to-eye with the Prime Mover?"
Of course we were.
Between songs, what could be described as a dark, Gregorian ambient music coursed through the room and "Stand By Him" started up, sounding for all the world like a Blue Oyster Cult song circa Agents of Fortune, but more metallic. The gut-felt pounding of "Death Knell" and the refrain of "6-6-6" also should have been incredibly silly, but the music was so engrossingly energizing it was not laughable. "Satan Prayer" started out with what sounded like an insistent electronic bass pulse that loosens teeth, as a throbbing other bass sound swam over top.
Emeritus gestured melodramatically when he wasn't singing, and in that song, the band used the term "Nicean Creed" -- which isn't something you don't hear much out of a band like this, even though it's not unlike when Iron Maiden used "Kwisatz Haderach" in "To Tame a Land."
At different points in the show people yelled out a hearty "Hail Satan!" but none more so than right before the instrumental song "Genesis" and the expertly played flamenco guitar in the middle. A sample of a baby screaming introduced the band's cover of "Here Comes the Sun" and instead of a wistful melody, it became a paradoxically, uplifting exercise in epic doom.
Someone yelled "Ritual" before the show was over, and Emeritus told us, "We approach the end of our ritual for tonight. You want to know why I wear this attire? I'm actually wearing nothing. To commemorate this occasion, we will conclude with one last ritual." And naturally the show entire ended with "Ritual," which made more than a handful of people mosh, while some crowd surfed. When the song ended, the band filed out to the sound of "The Host of Seraphim" by Dead Can Dance. Visually striking, surprisingly sonically powerful, Ghost entered the ranks of the best live bands going at the moment.
Before Ghost, Toronto, Ontario's Blood Ceremony played. When the band kicked into its set, the keyboard sound was a lot like what John Lord used to do in Deep Purple, but the rest of the music around it was heavier and more sludgy. The first song was, appropriately enough, the first track off the band's excellent 2011 album Living With the Ancients, "The Great God Pan." Alia O'Brien's vocals were strong and assured with hints of Grace Slick and Johnette Napolitano. But very much her own as she prowled the stage while not playing the keys and flute.
In moments, I was reminded of Dio-era Rainbow except with an even darker sound that managed to be just as bombastic without stepping the realm of the dumb. O'Brien gestured with her flute at points and looked wild-eyed into the audience. "Return to Forever," and its fuzzy bass struck a deep chord with the audience, and rarely has a flute been used and not sounded like a bad gimmick. Pretty much only Bardo Pond, Grand Funk Railroad and the heavier end of Jethro Tull pulled that off, and now Blood Ceremony. An especially memorable moment came when the crowd cheered heartily in a heady moment in the music and O'Brien cried out, "Yes! Yes!"
The intro to "The Witch's Dance" sounded a lot like something after the intro to "Black Sabbath," even though it was jokingly referred to as a dance song. Blood Ceremony brought its set of what O'Brien had told us in the beginning were "terrifying tales" to an end with the "Child in Time"-esque "Oliver Haddo." And what better way to end a set by a band that writes the perfect rock music to capture a '70s horror movie aesthetic than with a reference to an Aleister Crowley pseudonym?
Ancient Wisdom from Austin, Texas opened the show. On first blush, it looked and sounded like the kind of band some incredibly ambitious gamers would have put together. The singer/drummer wore a leathery hood, between his cymbal stands was a length of wood with the words "Abandon All Hope" painted in white on it.
Strewn about the stage were blanched animal skulls and antlers, bits of bone; the singer even had on an Alice in Chains Dirt t-shirt. The lyrics were paeans to the horned one, destroyer deities and those on the "left hand path." Frankly, it made me wonder if these guys read a bit too much into J.K. Huysmans and took it seriously with a dash of chaos magic, Satanism and certain strains of paganism.
The vocals recalled a much more musical James Hetfield. But in general, the combination of acoustic and electric guitar was creatively meshed together for a pretty unique sound that managed to be both heavy and elegant. Where the music shined most, though, was in how the singer/drummer played standing up and his hits on the floor tom rippled colossally through the room like a group of people from a tribe invoking an ancient god-like the natives of Skull Island calling forth Kong.
The bass, too, guided the rhythm and ensnared you along for the ride. While the lyric "I am the necessary evil" from a song of the same name seemed funny. There was something very earnest and intense about this band that really won you over in the end if you weren't into it at the beginning. Unusual, sometimes cartoonish, but ultimately original and interesting.
Personal Bias: I love theatrical bands if they also have music worth listening to, and Ghost definitely doesn't fail in that area.
Random Detail: Ran into CJ McLeod and Ethan Hill of Sauna, El Brian and Ethan McCarthy of Clinging to the Trees of a Forest Fire at the show.
By the Way: Ghost had a cool shirt that looked like someone had reworked the A Clockwork Orange logo with Papa Emeritus in place of Alex. Also, between sets, the new Speedwolf album, Ride With Death was played in its entirety at least twice. It never got old.
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