The general critical consensus surrounding Ghost’s most recent opus, Impera, resembles an echo chamber, with some version of the following terms appearing ad nauseam: hair metal, pop metal, eighties rock, AOR, Bon Jovi, Journey…even Toto! While all of these touch points resonate to some degree or another here, this superficial analysis potentially leaves the uninitiated with the distinct impression that Impera is something more akin to Slippery When Wet or (Satan forbid!) Hysteria. A more nuanced analysis might reveal how Tobias Forge (the man behind the Papas) and his coven of ghouls borrowed liberally from what was notably metal’s most over the top era, and twisted it in service of his dark majesty.
For anyone who’s been paying attention to Ghost since the beginning, this melding of seemingly disparate elements has always been their modus operandi. My first exposure to Ghost caught me completely unawares. Back in 2012, I went to see Mastodon and Opeth at Chicago’s Riviera Theater. I usually make it a point to try to catch the opening act. In this case I had no idea what to expect, being completely unfamiliar with who and what this band was. As the lights went down, and eerie organ music vaguely reminiscent of something you might hear at a Catholic funeral played over the PA, five hooded figures with their faces completely hidden took their place on stage. Cue eye roll – schtick alert!
Next thing you know, this dude in black papal robes, complete with mitre hat and skull makeup, strides out onstage, swinging incense from a chain by his side. My first thought is, “Great, more Swedish black metal with Cookie Monster on lead vocals.” However, when Papa Emeritus I opened his mouth, what emerged was a sickly sweet, cloying vocal, slithering around some of the catchiest melodies and luscious (though obviously pre-recorded) harmonies this side of Hell. I left the show humming “Ritual,” a song I had never heard before that night. I was hooked. (Side note: ten years later, Opeth and Mastodon are touring together again and playing the same theater – Ghost is headlining arenas with Volbeat.)
That unholy marriage of unforgettable ear worms and monster riffs, cloaked in tongue-in-cheek occult trappings, has been Ghost’s stock in trade since day one. Only now, everything is cranked up to “666.” So rather than a simple throwback to the era of big hair and million-notes-a-minute guitar solos, Impera borrows tropes from the best and most bombastic acts of metal’s chart-topping era and twists them into the most subversively catchy, yet heavy, rock album of the decade so far.
Lead-off instrumental “Imperium” sets the tone with lilting acoustic guitar that builds to a dramatic climax with soaring dual-guitar harmonies, before transitioning into “Kaisarion,” a galloping romp more akin to classic Iron Maiden than their poppier ’80s contemporaries. A few prog-ish twists and turns and lyrics like “It is the continence of bishops with their choirboys en suite,” would likely come as a shock to the listener who was expecting “Pour Some Sugar on Me.”
“Spillways” kicks off with a piano riff reminiscent of Toto’s “Hold The Line,” providing one of the albums lightest pop moments before “Call Me Little Sunshine” and “Hunter’s Moon” tread more familiar desecrated ground, the former recalling perhaps their greatest song, “Cirice” from 2015’s Meliora, and the latter a darker twist on the disco-ish “Dance Macabre” from Prequelle. “Watcher In The Sky” wraps up side one with a colossal riff that recalls Jake E. Lee-era Ozzy, with yet another catchy chorus that does the original Prince of Darkness proud.
Side two opens with another instrumental, featuring atmospheric, funereal brass that segues into the album’s most unique and bizarre track, “Twenties.” Kicking off like a Broadway show tune, the ghouls proper rip into a Metallica-style riff riding on top off a pulsing, syncopated rhythm unlike any heard in contemporary metal. Again, layers of stacked vocal harmonies sweeten a scathing lyrical attack on the immorality of the wealthy (and in case you need a more pointed clue, consider the line, “We will be grabbing them all by the hoo-hahs…”). Now we’re a long way from “Living On A Prayer.”
“Darkness At the Heart of My Love” re-interprets the classic power ballad with a dark edge, and while by no means a bad tune, Ghost covered this territory more effectively on a good portion of Prequelle. Following is perhaps the record’s more overtly classic pop metal moment, with the riff on “Griftwood” recalling Van Halen’s classic “Ain’t Talking ‘Bout Love,” but the lyrics most definitely talking ‘bout modern day hypocrites and grifters. Impera closes on a grand scale with the slow-build of “Respite on the Spitialfields” segueing between a gorgeous chorus and head-stomping verse. In perhaps the most obvious nod to the era of AquaNet excess, they nicked the string riff from the middle section of Whitesnake’s “Still of the Night” for the song’s bridge. If “Respite…” finds its way into Ghost’s live set, I better see a violin bow-wielding ghoul onstage.
As the last notes of “Respite…” fade out, the album leaves the distinct impression that this is Ghost’s most complete statement yet. The combined forces of Swedish pop maestro Klas Ahlund as producer and super-mix engineer Andy Wallace (the man behind such sonic classics as Reign in Blood and Nevermind) bring a modern heft that underscores the epic ambitions of Tobias and company.
Is it their best yet? With Meliora’s near-perfection still looming large, that’s a hard call to make. But by wrapping their mating of pop melody and occult metal in a solid conceit that traces the fall of empires, Ghost have risen beyond the King Diamond-meets-Blue Oyster Cult drag of their early years by incorporating equal parts classic metal, goth metal, and yes, the production values and pompousness of metal’s most vapid yet wildly popular decade. But make no mistake, Slippery When Wet this is not.