Few if any metal (or metal-adjacent) bands over the past ten years have been as recognized—and controversial—as Sweden’s Ghost. Their mixture of easily-digested goth rock and Halloween Satanism has made them darlings among mainstream media outlets, who consider them ultra-Satanic and scary due to their use of face paint and inverted crosses. As such, their spotlight-friendly theatricality and toned-down semi-metal has brought them international recognition, opening slots for bands like Iron Maiden, and even a Grammy for Best Metal Performance.
But for a lot of metalheads—this writer included—something about Ghost just doesn’t sit right. Maybe it’s the vocals, all nasal and reedy without ever really soaring or growling. Maybe it’s the costumes, which play at darkness but never go full Satan the way dark icons like King Diamond and Gorgoroth did. Maybe it’s the mainstream recognition, which is the ultimate way to bother metal purists who “only dig the first album.”
But maybe, just maybe, it’s how goddamn thirsty they are.
Simply put, Ghost's self-fed publicity machine is corny as hell. Everything Ghost does is a two-pronged divining rod for attention. Prong one, the band does something to get attention; prong two, the band publicly denounces the press for paying attention to prong one. Their entire publicity strategy is like a teenager arriving at Christmas dinner with a face tattoo and then screaming, “GOD, LEAVE ME ALONE!” every time someone points it out.
A little background: Ghost emerged in 2010 with a three-song demo full of Sabbathian doom metal mixed with gothic horror themes that became an underground sensation, earning ample praise from Darkthrone frontman Fenriz and a variety of other underground metal tastemakers. This got their debut album Opus Eponymous released by two important indie metal labels, Rise Above in Europe and Metal Blade in the US. The band quickly blew up, due in no small part to being fronted by “Papa Emeritus”, who wore a satanic pope outfit and skull face paint, while the rest of the band played as “Nameless Ghouls” in black suits and commedia dell’arte masks.
Since then, the band has refined its sound to incorporate catchy 80s heavy metal, and has released several enjoyable singles, the most recent being “Rats”, the video of which features the band’s “new” frontman (we’ll get there) dancing around a ruined cityscape as a fashionable version of the Horseman Pestilence.
But Ghost’s publicity routine has its own history. With every album cycle, a “new” Papa Emeritus is introduced—Emeritus II, with a slightly more stylized robe; Emeritus III, with a simpler skull design, slicked-back hair, white opera gloves, and a black Nehru jacket; and now Cardinal Copia, a Mafioso personality with a poorly-applied old man prosthetic on his face. But now, changing frontmen is old--there needs to be a twist! Earlier this week, it was announced that Cardinal Copia is actually in the running to become Papa Emeritus IV if he studies properly under his predecessor.
If the band had actually brought in a new frontman for every album, this might even be kind of cool. But all of these clerical titles are nicknames for Tobias Forge, frontman of Swedish death metallers Repugnant. Forge did his best to publicly hide his true identity, got accidentally outed via Rob Zombie’s Instagram, and then made a point of doing interviews to discuss how that outing affected him, his music, and fans’ relationship to Ghost. So instead, the rotating frontman routine feels like an attempt to get likes, views, and clicks through corny non-developments, rather than making music so good that people can’t ignore it.
Besides the rotating Papas, there’s also the changing name. In 2013, the band changed their name to “Ghost B.C.” for “legal reasons” that were never clearly explained; they dropped the suffix in 2015 and publicly lamented how much everyone focused on it (it probably didn’t help that a handful of other bands, such as Entombed, Venom, and Queensryche began joining in on the fun by changing their names over legal issues).
And now, there’s Rihanna. At this year's Meta Gala, which had the theme “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion And The Catholic Imagination,” the pop star showed up wearing a bomb-ass play on the pope’s traditional robe, complete with a mitre (the formal name for that hat the pope wears that looks like the tip of a fountain pen). Of course, since Papa Emeritus also wears a mitre, Ghost felt the need to jump in with this tweet:
Sure, Ghost’s tweet felt playful—but it also felt needy and unnecessary, as though referencing the trend of celebrities wearing the shirts of metal bands they don’t actually listen to. What’s funny is that it also felt like Ghost wanting to appropriate Rihanna’s fame and impeccable fashion sense to promote their own shtick. “See?!” Ghost seemed to say. “We wore that hat, too! Just like Rihanna!”
This is certainly not the first time a metal band has gone about courting publicity the wrong way, and it’s certainly not the worst. Bands are always subtweeting each other (like Cavalera Conspiracy manager Gloria Cavalera) and going on stupid, bigoted Facebook rants (like the lead singer of Trapt). Christ, back in the 80s, Vince Neil of Motley Crue and Axl Rose of Guns ‘N Roses went on TV and threatened to fight each other publicly. You can buy Slayer socks these days.
And sometimes, the modern PR machine feels so by-the-book that you want someone to do the kind of theatrical shit Ghost does. Other bands have had costumes, live gimmicks, fake personas—but in the past, that seemed to complement the music. Slipknot, Gwar, Alice Cooper, and King Diamond centered their shows around their tunes, and let the rumor mill do a lot of their publicity work. Meanwhile, the really hardcore guys like Ozzy and Mötley Crüe were going all the way, biting off bats’ heads and drinking piss. With Ghost, it often feels like the theater of what they do exists as a toothless way to feed their own publicity, and that it all comes before the music.
The guys in Ghost don’t care, because they’re making dickloads of money. If they read this column and give a rat’s ass (big if), they’ll do some juvenile-ass shit like tweet, “We are thirsty” with a picture of Cardinal Copia drinking wine out of a tiny crystal glass. That said, there’s going to be a moment where they release an album of semi-decent-but-not-great music backed by yet another ring of the circus. And the world’s going to be tired of it, and that’ll be that.
Which leads to the big question: could Ghost survive on their music alone, the way bands like underground success stories Power Trip and Gatecreeper do? Maybe, but certainly not on their current level of recognition. They might be a likeable underground doom band, but just that. So maybe what Ghost needs to do is just drop an album. No new frontman, no public drama, no role-playing online—just put out an album of music. Pull a Beyoncé. Garner praise and acclaim from the songs alone. The audience might be smaller and more underground, but at least they’ll really care.
But Ghost will never do that, because if it doesn’t include a big publicity campaign with references to “the clergy” and a new face paint design, it’s just a record with ten Ghost songs on it—and I’m not sure anyone’s actually here for that.
Christopher Krovatin is haunting Twitter.