A tour with heavy metal legends Iron Maiden pushes newcomers Ghost BC into the forefront of the rock ’n’ roll world.
Heavy metal institution Iron Maiden has been sweeping the nation once again with their 2017 Book of Souls World Tour, which has of course added yet more clout to the already decorated rock gods. Iron Maiden has been on the forefront of the not-quite-mainstream metal and hard-rock scene for well over 30 years now, though they’ve been continually snubbed from what most call a rightful place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
While Iron Maiden’s heavy metal chops won’t exactly be questioned, there’s been no shortage of controversy about the band selected as their special guests for the Book of Souls: Swedish imports Ghost BC.
Ghost BC, now generally referred to as just Ghost, entered the heavy metal scene only a few years back and very quickly began dominating charts. They managed to take home the 2016 Grammy for best hard rock or metal song with their hit single “Cirice,” from their most recent album Meliora.
Ghost is known both for their surprisingly approachable sound as well as their shocking Satanic image, both of which have gotten them no shortage of criticism on either side of the aisle. Mainstream critics harp that the Satanic anti-Pope image of their front man, Papa Emeritus (now the Third), is too jagged of a pill for most audiences to swallow, while many die-hard metal fans complain that their widely influenced sound doesn’t fit the black metal appearance they put on.
The theatrical, genre-blending band has nonetheless brought home the aforementioned Grammy as well as numerous other awards and has swept up a devoted legion of fans who find their somewhat controversial “shtick” to be just the kind of dark magic they need.
Iron Maiden cherry-picking them to open for a world tour is another good sign the band is gaining momentum.
The last leg of the Book of Souls Tour ended in Brooklyn, New York, where this lucky writer was able to attend the monumental close to the tour that may have launched Ghost BC into the stratosphere of newcomer clout.
A booming start to Ghost’s set began with the groovy, memorable opening to their Satanic jam “Square Hammer.” Lining up with their theatrical tendencies, smoke filled a stage lit with hazy blue light.
The Nameless Ghouls, black-clad and steel-masked band members, lined the lip of the stage while the lyrical verses began, wailed by a dramatically entering Papa Emeritus III, dressed in his standard priestly robes and papal tiara.
“Are you with us?” was a call that drew a roar from the crowd.
Lights formed in a sort of halo around the skeletal face of Emeritus while his arms outstretched in a welcoming, grand gesture.
With a stellar opening, Ghost moved into the harder, heavier metal jam “From the Pinnacle to the Pit,” a tune drawing a thicker parallel to the band that they were opening for. And while the next selections of “Mummy Dust” and “Ritual” were handpicked to reflect the sound of Iron Maiden to rev up a crowd of ravenous fans, there was no missing the distinctive mythical sound of Ghost BC.
Yet somehow in between the evil bellowing of heavy metal, Papa Emeritus had an opportunity to lead the crowd in some call and response while the Nameless Ghouls tuned up. “Yes,” he would say sort of meekly while pointing to the audience. No “yeah,” but just a sort of weird, fatherly “yes.” The audience was laughing, while Emeritus then called for “a stern ‘no’” with a little wag of his finger. “Let’s celebrate the female orgasm in the name of Satan” was also a line that drew a huge laugh, tinged with a little discomfort.
Context, sometimes, isn’t necessary.
Papa Emeritus III seemed to have garnished a somehow majestic but less threatening stage presence than his compared ancestors. The Emeritus name, of course, is a dynastic one passed down through different front men of Ghost, a cycle that happens more or less with every major album release. This, of course, is only what we’re led to believe and is sort of hard to prove with the recurring full-facial prosthetic masks worn by every one of them. Ghost seems to take their anonymity very seriously.
Cathedral organs bellowed a powerful, almost spiritually moving sound for the crowd-pleasing hit “Cirice,” while the stage glowed an infernal red for “Year Zero.” The auditorium echoed with the chanting of “Hail Satan” for a dark, quaking chorus.
To many, it’s definitely a bleak, upsetting picture: thousands of people crammed into an auditorium chanting the name of the devil like some sort of heavy metal cult. One can imagine pretty easily how Ghost BC has managed to so quickly upset mainstream audiences with their infernal, anti-Christian image.
But to really examine the point of all this, one has to look at Ghost as a whole and at what the point of rock music has always stood to be: an artistic movement.
Now plenty would argue that a good musician doesn’t need a shtick to garnish notoriety, particularly one that’s deliberately offensive. Shock value is often confused with mediocrity in art, and plenty of times it requires a good degree of understanding to execute properly.
Rock ’n’ roll, particularly heavy metal, has always been and will continue to be a performative, image-heavy art form. It is inherently theatrical, shocking and offensive. Metal in particular has existed to explore the darker side of art and to challenge authority and comfort. An image is a crucial part of any rock band and is usually just as important as the sound — hair, leather and face paint symbolize rock music just as much as any flashy guitar solo does.
And while Ghost’s anti-Pope image is, of course, inherently offensive to many and their dark lyrics reflect a cultlike reverence for Satan himself, examining them as a whole reveals that it isn’t as heavy-handed as one might assume.
Papa Emeritus III’s calm, almost fatherly stage presence is a stark contrast to the image he and the Nameless Ghouls present. Even compared to the headlining Iron Maiden, who ripped the heart out of a giant zombie onstage to fling blood onto the audience (the most metal thing this writer has ever seen), Ghost had a controlled and even inoffensive demeanor in their opening show.
It’s certainly unexpected, and what is even more so is their incredibly approachable sound. Ghost BC cites their influences in the Beach Boys as well as other heavier metal institutions like Black Sabbath. They could be described as a gateway drug to metal, an easy in for the mainstream to understand the genre as a whole.
Aside from music, a purposefully offensive image has been a tool in all kinds of performance art. It exists to challenge a standard and to make the audience question their comfort levels. There are few more surreal feelings that come from listening to music than finding yourself screaming “Hail Satan” in a crowd full of strangers, hands raised to the stage full of steel-masked guitarists and the skeleton pope himself. But why is it uncomfortable? Why is it offensive?
That, maybe, is the point here.
Ghost BC challenges the comfort level of their audience. They challenge the preconceptions of religious reverence and apply it to the institution of rock music. And this image-heavy presence of theirs seems to have an iron grasp on what metal music, and really all music, is born to be. It’s performance art. It’s theatrics. It’s glamorous, wild and offensive, which has been the ideal of rock music since its inception.