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Review: Joshua Batten Photos: Jason Rosewarne

On paper, you wouldn’t pick Ghost to be the saviours of arena rock, bringing it into the modern day for the current generation. Hailing from Sweden, their clear visual identity leans on romanticising the occult, with satanic imagery based around the church, songs about devil worship, band members who hide their identities behind identical faceless masks, and a satanic Pope in black & white makeup as a frontman/figurehead. But the truth is that behind the spooky visuals and anonymity, there is a genuine talent for pop-rock hooks and deep audience engagement.

Ghost’s music has more in common with classic bands such as Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult, Kansas and even ABBA than other modern theatrical bands such as Slipknot or GWAR. I would best describe them to newbies as a modern-day KISS – behind the spooky visual identity and theatrics, is just a genuine desire to make great songs and rock out. Until 2017 no-one knew who they were behind the masks, so the focus has always been on the quality of their music, the power of their live show, and the striking image of frontman Papa Emeritus (whose look is updated for each album cycle and is the focus of the band’s marketing). Even though multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter Tobias Forge has since been outed as the main man behind the music, the strength of Ghost’s lore and world-building has grown to a point where they have a dedicated cult following to rival any classic metal band or even modern tv shows like Game of Thrones & Stranger Things.

Following appearances at Soundwave 2013, Big Day Out 2014 and Download 2019, the ImperaTour (in support of their latest album, 2022’s Impera) marks Ghost’s first full headline tour of Australia’s east coast, and anticipation has been high – so high in fact that all three shows were upgraded to larger venues once they sold out, allowing for more fans to join the fun and for Ghost to bring their full theatrical production over from Europe, ensuring that no compromises would be made for Antipodean audiences.

Arriving at John Cain Arena, the massive lines for entry go all the way back to the entrance of Rod Laver, with people of all ages and genders getting into the spirit with cosplay and face paint being embraced by both adults and kids as young as five years old. This almost feels more like a comic convention than a rock concert, and speaks to the level of Ghost’s cult status, built up organically over ten years of touring, bolstered in recent years through social media. Ghost concerts are referred to by fans as “Rituals”, and indeed we have all come to worship at the altar of Papa Emeritus and his band of Nameless Ghouls.

Unfortunately, technical delays mean the doors open late and opening act Southeastern Desert Metal have had their set cut. This is certainly a shame as it would have been an incredible opportunity for the Darwin based band to play to an attentive and supportive audience, but safety is priority and as we are about to see, Ghost’s show is one that leaves very little to chance. The stage itself is based around a Catholic Church motif, with inflatable stone archways framing the LED screens displaying stained glass window designs. Throughout the night, there will be smoke and fireworks from behind the stage, intricate lighting cues in time with the music, literal sparks coming down from the roof, and confetti. Simply put, this is theatrical rock in its truest sense.

As the lights go down and the intro piece “Imperium” plays over the PA, the anticipation reaches an all-time high, climaxing as the lights go up, the safety curtain is dropped, and the Ghouls launch triumphantly into “Kaisarion”. Finally, Papa Emeritus arrives and takes command of the stage as the ringmaster for this circus of Satan. Wearing an all-black suit with a suave gold jacket, Papa’s aim is not to shock or frighten, but to invite us all into his world and make us feel welcome in his church. His non-song stage patter is minimal throughout the night, but when he does speak, it’s campy and light-hearted. He repeatedly asked us “Are you having fun?”, and during the songs, he would ask the audience to sing or scream along, taking inspiration other metal frontmen such as Rob Halford, Bruce Dickinson and of course, Alice Cooper.

With five albums and four EPs under their belt, Ghost have a strong back catalogue of songs that fans are eager to sing along to. Newer songs based around catchy choruses such as “Rats”, “Faith”, “Spillways” and “Absolution” sit perfectly at home alongside earlier tunes such as “Con Clavi Con Dio”, “Ritual” and “Year Zero”, which lean more into the occult in their musical arrangements and tone but are still strong earworms that will linger long after the show finishes. Certain songs that lacked a certain energy on record, such as “Cirice” and “Watcher in The Sky”, take on renewed life thanks to choreographed staging, costume changes and well-timed lighting cues. Indeed, Papa had a handful of subtle but effective costume changes throughout the night, including full pope regalia for “Call Me Little Sunshine” complete with Robe & Mitre, batwings for “Cirice”, and a black Cornette hat for “Year Zero”.

Because the Ghouls are nameless, this is one review where I thought it would be impossible to highlight individual musical talents, but each of the Ghouls have their own choreography and musical identity that they bring to the show, such as one of the two lead guitarists taking extended solo spots at the middle and end of certain songs, much to the fake chagrin of the others. Keyboard Ghoul has an array of synths at their fingertips to replicate the orchestral sounds of the studio tracks, the backing vocalists (one male and one female, positioned on opposite sides of the stage) use their body language to bring the crowds in, and the two Guitar Ghouls play off each other brilliantly, with several Thin Lizzy/Maiden-esque double harmonies and melodies throughout the songs, proving that the guitar solo still has its place in music.

The audience lit up with phone lights for the ballad “He Is” before the show reached its theatrical peak for the instrumental “Miasma”. Midway through the song, a large glass coffin was wheeled out containing the corpse of Papa Nihil, the “founder” of Ghost according to their lore. Following some shock treatment, the corpse was reanimated, and Nihil grabbed a saxophone to play the solo featured on the original recording, getting a rapturous response from the audience before lying back in his coffin and getting wheeled offstage.

The main act ended with the trifecta of “Mary On A Cross”, the ‘60s inspired single from 2019 that catapulted Ghost to TikTok fame in 2022, “Mummy Dust”, with a mix of confetti and dollar bills showering the crowd (these unique bills have become collector’s items for fans as much as the “Angus bucks” were for AC/DC fans in back in the ‘90s), and “Respite on the Spitalfields”, an epic, sweeping musical journey that ends by bringing back the riff from “Imperium” as Papa waves goodbye. Also, right before “Respite”, Papa was kind enough to apologise to Southeastern Desert Metal for having to cut their set due to the technical difficulties, calling them friends and saying “you should check them out” – a true class act!

But of course, it’s not really over. Following a couple of minutes of blackout, Papa returns wearing a bedazzled blue “Aftershow” jacket to tease the audience some more. After “negotiating” from two to three songs, the final encore contains three of Ghost’s catchiest songs, starting with “Kiss The Go-Goat” (the other 60’s throwback song alongside Mary on A Cross), before going into the disco-metal of “Dance Macabre”, and closing with “Square Hammer”, with the entire crowd of 10,000 singing along to its chorus “Are you ready to swear right here, right now, before the devil?” Well, if the devil is this suave and can bring people together with such joy, then yes, we most certainly are!

So many of today’s arena rock shows are based on nostalgia, with classic rockers playing their hits to a mix of long-time fans who have fond memories of hearing them in their youth, and younger fans who want to catch these legends live at least once in their lifetime before they retire. Ghost are a rare exception to that rule – their focus on world-building and strong melodic pop songs with a heavy metal vocabulary have gained them thousands of fans the world over, to the point where they are a welcome breath of fresh air – a current band in the prime of their career, for this generation to get invested in, both musically and theatrically. Do yourself a favour and make sure you see them next time they come to Melbourne, which will likely be in an even larger venue, as their cult continues to grow.


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