When we think of black metal bands we often think of bands that use heavy (driving) music, high-octane guitar solos and lyrics that growl and shriek about Satan in their songs. Their stage shows, and videos, are often full of dark gothic imagery, symbols and often tend to be wild and chaotic.
For some this is a simplistic view of black metal, for many people this description is a fairly accurate portrayal of all black metal bands. But is it really? Do all bands, described as black metal bands, really fit this description?
But first, what exactly is black metal?
Black metal (a term often credited to first being used by UK band Venom) is a genre of heavy metal that focuses on satanic, occult and supernatural themes as a basis for its songs and imagery.
Naturally this genre of music draws a great deal of criticism from moral and religious organizations as being dangerous, due to the subject matter which critics claim as both morally corrupt and morally corrupting in its nature. However, this does not stop millions of people all over the world from loving it. In fact black metal is probably more popular now than it ever has been. Due largely in part to the internet and (ironically) the sheer amount of promotion the music’s harshest critics have given it.
So does this mean that part of the appeal is based on the description at the start of this article and partly as a way to flip the music’s critics the middle finger? Probably for some, many people (most likely) just like the way it sounds. But again, is the original description an accurate portrayal of all black metal bands?
The answer is no. There are black metal bands that do not fit this description, save in their subject matter. One such band is Sweden’s Ghost.
While listed as being active since 2008, band members say that the group was actually started in 2006 when they would get together to jam out songs and ideas.
From those jam sessions came the basis for their song ‘Stand by Him’, which would be released in 2010 on their Opus Eponymous album.
For a few years in North America the band used the name Ghost BC due to concerns of copyright infringement, which was no longer a concern as of 2015 and the band then dropped the added initials. Some criticized Ghost for using BC as a means of mocking the term. While the band doesn’t deny this they do state that their use of the letters is meant to stand for Because of Copyright.
Which brings up something that separates Ghost from many other black metal bands, their tongue in cheek sense of humour.
During interviews the members of Ghost do not go on about how awful god or religion are. When asked they will discuss these subjects; and while they do admit they criticize religion in their music they also state that they are largely criticizing humanity. This doesn’t mean that Ghost has no satanic content in their music.
With songs such as Satanic Prayer, The Ritual, Stand by Him and Depth of Satan’s Eyes, Ghost has recorded a great deal of satanic content in their lyrics which they don’t try to hide or back pedal from.
Then there is the band’s image. Originally the 6-piece band appeared with the 5 instrumentalists (called Nameless Ghouls) wearing dark cowls (with symbols on them) and pointed masks. The singer (Papa Emeritus) wore something similar to priests robes, with a prosthetic and paint on his face to give it the appearance of a skull. The band said that this wasn’t an attempt to be satanic, but rather to create a theatrical image that buried their individual personalities so the music (rather than individual members) would stand out, which they drew from a love of horror movies and religious imagery.
With each new album Ghost has modified their image and claimed that they have replaced Papa Emeritus (each time) with one of his siblings, each one three months younger than the previous. Again this is where their tongue in cheek humour comes into play as the band claims that the clergy sends each new Papa Emeritus to them; who choose him through a corporate style system. The band states that because of this they never have a Papa Emeritus for very long and there is no reason to get to know him. Currently they are on Papa Emeritus #3.
Ghosts live shows also separate them from other black metal bands. They don’t bounce around the stage aimlessly like a pack of rabid squirrels with flaring hemorrhoids. Rather their shows use dramatic lighting and the band calmly moves around the stage while still getting into the music. Their playing is clean and tight, and singer Papa Emeritus sounds as good as he does on the studio-recorded tracks.
Moving calmly around the stage while singing Papa Emeritus encourages audience participation in the songs and often interacts with individual members of both the audience and the band. Asking fans questions, making jokes, thanking fans and praising band members are all part of Papa Emeritus’s stage presence. And notably is the use of his hands, often seeming to be conducting or guiding as he moves about the stage while singing, talking and pointing to people on stage and in the audience.
Ghost also does acoustic performances during live appearances, where Papa Emeritus hands out percussion instruments to the crowd to join in the song.
While the Nameless Ghouls do not speak on stage, video footage (from fans) show them to be very warm and friendly during autograph sessions and during times when fans meet the band.
The band’s sound is a pure classic heavy rock, but that doesn’t mean they stick with one sound throughout all their recordings. In fact Ghost varies their sound enough to give each song (and album) its own flair while still retaining their sound. Fans of such bands as Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult and Alice in Chains will find Ghost’s sound to be both familiar but still unique to the band.
So, is Ghost Good or Garbage?
As always I’ll leave a video for you to decide on your own. This one is ‘Cirice’ from the 2015 album Meliora. I chose this one not only because it’s a great song, but it doesn’t have satanic lyrics, as I understand that some will not feel comfortable with that type of lyric; as is to be expected with this genre of music.
Personally, I liked quite a few of the bands songs. They have a thick haunting sound that reminds me of bands such as Alice in Chains and Blue Oyster Cult, two bands I have been a long time fan of. But, again, it will be up to the listener to decide.
John Goodale is the author of ‘Johnny Gora’ (available through Amazon.com), and a number of articles here on TMRZoo.com. His monthly column ‘Indy Comics Spotlight’ appears here and through his blog Indy Comics Spotlight