Satan for the masses: Ghost B.C. brings spooky Swedish metal to Turner Hall
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Surely the sleuths of the Internet have already uncovered the identities of the Nameless Ghouls who play the instruments in the band Ghost B.C. (The “B.C.” is a U.S.-only legal requirement.) Even The Residents can’t keep everything secret from the public in this day and age. An air of mystery ought to encourage fans not to seek out that information, though, because everything about Ghost is such obvious fantastical escapism that peeking behind the masks is tantamount to giving up on the experience entirely. Ultimately, the music by itself isn’t likely to be enough to rally legions of followers to Ghost’s cause, but the reality is that the band’s days are probably numbered. The din of hype-backlash is already so noisy that the Ghouls and frontman Papa Emeritus II might well be on the verge of pulling a Lick It Up, so Wednesday’s show at Turner Hall may have been Milwaukee’s first and last chance to get the full Ghost effect, or even to play along at all.
The audience was basically made up of three kinds of people: metalheads swooning over cheesy retro hard rock, mainstream rock fans giving themselves over to something ostensibly more evil than what they’re used to, and curiosity seekers trying to assess the validity of the whole circus. This is a band whose stated purpose is to infiltrate popular culture for Satan, whose singer dresses up in a cardinal outfit with a skull face; it seems absurd to dismiss the authenticity of Ghost for failing to be scary enough, as if the Satanism of traditional Scandinavian black metal is more real. Ghost is a hell of a lot more subversive with its relentlessly derivative, catchy riffs and clear melodies than Burzum or Mayhem—it’s just a matter of which sort of mythology and facepaint you’d prefer to surrender your secular reason to.
The most surprising thing about Wednesday’s show was how mild the theatrics actually were. In the early goings, most people were afraid that if they banged their heads they might miss something, augmenting the decidedly un-metal atmosphere. The opening Tony-Iommi-worshipping riff of “Per Aspera Ad Inferi” and its accompanying steely synths came off as grotesquely corny, which probably lost a good portion of the uninitiated. Papa’s ridiculously un-poetic lyrics are similarly impossible to take seriously, although translated into Swedish they’d probably inspire stone-faced devotion amongst the non-Swedish metal community. But as the band dug in its heels, the music gradually began to eclipse the expectation of outlandish behavior and spectacle.
Ghost is unabashedly music for the masses. The band may not have played its cover of ABBA’s “I’m A Marionette” at this particular show, but there was certainly no pretense of underground cred. There was the three-minute devil-horn pop of “Prime Mover,” the Journey-meets-Blizzard-Of-Oz rocker “Elizabeth,” and the morbid ballad “Body And Blood,” too dirge-y to be catchy but too cheesy to carry any weight. “Stand By Him,” a quasi-update of Ozzy’s “Shot In The Dark,” found the band hitting its stride. With the studio polish stripped away, this one gained a bit of ferocity, as did the epic “Death Knell,” which ended with an unexpected post-rock/synth-drone jam, one of the night’s few hints of musical exploration.
That tune along with the irresistible carnival-waltz groove of “Secular Haze” and the delirious disco-metal of “Year Zero” hint at potential original directions for the band, but it’s hard to imagine the thespians of Ghost ever taking themselves seriously enough to strive for respectability. At this point, their strengths lie in slick, palatable riffs straight out of the ’70s, simple chant-along choruses, and the vague thrill of hidden identities. Judging by the fervent crowd participation during anthems like “Satan Prayer,” “Year Zero,” and “Monstrance Clock”—not to mention the mad rush to the merch table when the lights went up—maybe their mystique is still improbably intact after all, and they’re well on their way to a commercial radio station near you.