Thursday, October 31, 2013

Album Review: Ghost: Infestissumam

Ghost:  Infestissumam
Label:  Loma Vista Recordings
Released:  April 16, 2013


It's Halloween - my favorite holiday!  It's the most elemental and basically human, and therefore the most fun - the single day of the year when children of all ages can collectively indulge, without shame, in their goofy superstitions, wish fulfillment, and identity reinvention.  This is the currency and language of the blues and rock & roll, and of course. . . .the devil himself.  From Robert Johnson to the Rolling Stones, Beelzebub and rock & roll have been thick as thieves.

Black Sabbath made the demonic connection even more explicit in 1970 when they modeled their entire aesthetic on their favorite horror films and opened their debut album with an ominous guitar riff whose harmonic progression is based on the infamous "tritone," regarded since antiquity as diabolus in musica ("the devil in music").  From then on, Lucifer and camp horror have been staples of heavy rock music - taken to their absolute limits by extreme genres like death metal and black metal.

In recent years, as the darker genres of metal became overly austere and insular, a void was created for a band to slow things down and bring back some of the mystery, spectacle, and fun espoused by many of the originals:  Black Sabbath, Kiss, Alice Cooper, and King Diamond.  Scandinavia, with its cold temperatures and long nights, has been a breeding ground for "satanic" metal for decades, so it's only natural that Sweden would birth the six-piece "satanic" metal band Ghost.

Ghost take on the elaborate visual style of the Catholic church and their members are entirely anonymous (some astute Google sleuthing reveals more, but I won't spoil the fun).  Frontman, Papa Emeritus II, wears the attire of a villainous pope with a prosthetic skull for a face, while the rest of the band, known as Nameless Ghouls, wear carnival masks and hooded monk outfits.  Though one might expect the band to have a harsh sound, with ghastly vocals, the opposite is in fact the case.  They get about as heavy as vintage Sabbath or Blue Oyster Cult, with clean melodic vocals and ear-worm hooks that'll have you singing long after the LP is over.

Metal fans who worship at the bloody altars of more extreme genres might puke over this relatively lightweight stuff (and there has been some backlash in the metal blogosphere) but, honestly, who's more likely to be Satan incarnate at this point, Robin Thicke with his ubiquitous top-40 pop jingles and soccer-mom fan base, or some has-been boogyman like Marilyn Manson only your thirteen year-old kid fully appreciates?  Maybe Ghost just split the difference, but their true spirit guide is certainly Gene Simmons what with all the crazy merch these guys peddle.  Care for a Ghost bikini, or a Ghost dildo?  They've got you covered.

Ghost hit the scene with a splash in late 2010 with their debut album Opus Eponymous, featuring sweet artwork inspired by the poster art for 1979 TV horror series Salem's Lot.  Whereas that album stuck to the minimal, spooky vibes of mid '70's Sabbath, their sophomore album, Infestissumam, expands the band's theatrical sound considerably (naturally, the artwork references 1984 film Amadeus).  Kicking off with a full Gregorian choir singing the dark lord's praises in Latin, Infestissumam slips easily in and out of epic sing-along anthems, buttressed with triumphant go-for-broke Meat Loaf-esque arrangements and super-glossy production.  This stuff is ready-made for Broadway.

Early single "Secular Haze" is basically a church-organ led waltz punctuated by the occasional palm-muted guitar (this is supposed to be "metal" after all), while batshit "Ghuleh/Zombie Queen" blows up the whole Ghost template.  The track begins as a tearful piano ballad with new-age Vangelis synth layered on top.  As brash hair-metal guitar noodling threatens to derail the whole cheese-ball affair, the track tacks hard left, immediately shifting into a shimmering surf-rock jam fit for Gidget's upbeat Halloween beach party - hosted by an undead Dick Dale on guitar.  Yeah, it's that good.  But just before you get carried away with sunny vibes and thoughts of hot reanimated babes, Ghost remind you exactly who this album is really about.

The album's centerpiece, "Year Zero," begins ominously with a choral chant listing some of el diablo's many aliases:  "Belial/ Behemoth/ Beelzebub/ Asmodeus/ Satanas/ Lucifer!"  This devilish disco cut is vaguely reminiscent of Nine Inch Nails' "Heresy" from The Downward Spiral, a track similarly critical of the Christian church (coincidentally, Year Zero is also the title of NIN's fifth studio album).  This memorable ditty is plenty blasphemous, but album closer "Monstrous Clock" is the icing on the devil's food cake (I couldn't resist) - ending the LP with the massive coed choral recitation "Come together/ Together as one/ Come together/ for Lucifer's son!"  It's really quite lovely, but I doubt it'll end up on many church choir set lists this holiday season.

Though there are some naughty themes and sacrilegious lyrics on Infestissumam it's all about as frightening and offensive as watching The Omen in broad daylight.  The occult and the macabre have permeated every inch of popular western entertainment in recent years.  Wizards, vampires, witches, demons, and zombies - people can't get enough!  With all the real-life doom and gloom people endure everyday, is it any wonder they're drawn to this kind of escapism in books, television, and film - to fantastic worlds of horror, danger, mystery, and sex?  That's all familiar territory for fans of rock & roll music.

For Ghost, it's Halloween every day and, though the gimmick won't last, the band does have a fail-safe.  Ghost plan to inaugurate a new "Papa" for every new album (really, the same guy with a different mask), thereby giving the band the opportunity to reinvent itself a limitless number of times.  Once you've spent your Halloween costume this year, there's still plenty of fun in dreaming up another for next year.  I wonder what new flavors the next "Papa" will bring to Ghost's metal mixture.  Rockabilly?  Glam?  Punk?  One thing's for sure, the devil will be in the details.   Happy Halloween!    


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