Swedish pop genius comes in many forms. Yes, there’s the shiny pop that runs from ABBA to super-producer Max Martin, but the country has also produced more unusual permutations.
Ghost, whose new song Hunter’s Moon plays over the end credits of new slasher franchise instalment Halloween Kills and reached the Billboard Hot Hard Rock Songs Top 10 this month, have taken pop to very dark places over the past 15 years. Not for nothing have Ghost been repeatedly described as “Black Sabbath meets ABBA”.
To the riffs of doom metal pioneers such as Witchfinder General and Pentagram, they have added a large measure of psychedelic whimsy and, somewhat surprisingly, the anthemic pop harmonies of Blue Öyster Cult and the Beach Boys.
This is a unique sonic mix, but their bombastic onstage presentation,with roots through the pantomimic camp of Alice Cooper to the original master of schlocky horror, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, has also attracted attention.
Live performance is central to the band, and they have confirmed their long-awaited fifth album will not appear until they can tour it in all their theatrical glory, which sees frontman Tobias Forge take to the stage as the corpse-paint and mitre-wearing anti-pope Papa Emeritus backed by the masked and horned “Nameless Ghouls”.
This is a band all about spectacle and an elaborate internal mythology has seen a “new” Papa Emeritus emerge with each album. Each has in fact been a rubber-mask-wearing Forge who managed to remain anonymous until a 2017 court battle with former Ghost members forced him into the limelight.
Forge’s interest in dark religious imagery and musical eclecticism were apparent from early on. The atmosphere of the 16th-century church in his home town of Linköping, 120 miles from Stockholm, was an early influence.
As a teenager, his band Repugnant embraced the best grisly traditions of death metal, his growled vocals appearing on songs with titles such as Premature Burial and Mutilated Remains. But as guitarist with glam rock band Crashdïet, his style took a far more tongue-in-cheek turn.
Ghost tread the line between the two, with plenty of knowing camp, but an image convincing enough and a sound crushing enough to genuinely thrill. That combination has proved a winning formula.
In 2016, Ghost became the first Swedish rock band ever to win a Grammy, winning for Best Metal Performance for the single Cirice. A by turns creepy and epic marriage of doom metal and pop, it appeared on Meliora (2015), an album about “the absence of God”, and the follow up to 2010’s Opus Eponymous and 2013’s breakthrough Infestissumam, both of which took the antichrist as their theme. Prequelle, from 2018, meanwhile, was a concept album about the Black Death.
Yet Ghost’s roots in pop run deep. Hunter’s Moon was co-written by Max Grahn, who has worked with Justin Bieber, The Weeknd and Rita Ora, and the song, like Meliora, was produced by Klas Åhlund of legendary Swedish alternative rockers Teddybears, who has worked his magic with pop legends such as Madonna, Katy Perry, Britney Spears and Robyn.
But it is not just in their work with Åhlund that Ghost have acknowledged their debt to Swedish pop. Their Dave Grohl-produced 2013 EP, If You Have Ghost, featured a cover of ABBA’s I’m A Marionette, its chorus rendered in doomy tones which fully brought out the barely concealed creepiness of the original, as well as of Army of Lovers’ camp fest Crucified, which became a kind of satanic incantation.
That EP, also featuring versions of Depeche Mode’s gothic synth-pop Waiting for the Night and psychedelic pioneer Roky Erickson’s euphoric song of the title, was testament to the band’s eclecticism, and Ghost have continued to experiment with different genres in a way few bands dare. In 2019, Kiss the Go-Goat, from the two-track EP Seven Inches of Satanic Panic, was presented as a genuine original from 1969 and found the band paying overt tribute to The Doors, one of their principal influences.
The same year’s Dance Macabre, meanwhile, was apparently inspired by 1980s rock ballads, complete with sparkly synths, histrionic guitars and leotard-clad dancers in the video (although the fact they turn out to be blood-sucking deviants was thoroughly on-brand).
But all the theatrics – their performances are referred to by fans not as mere gigs but “rituals” – mask that Ghost deal with bigger themes than many of their allegedly more serious contemporaries, dealing with life, death and an ultimate power, whether good or evil.
And while their look and sound so often looks to the past, from the medieval Church to the psychedelic rock of the 1960s, they often deal with an apocalyptic present at the same time.
Rats (2018) simultaneously references the vermin responsible for medieval plague and the modern epidemic of misinformation and demagoguery: “In times of turmoil, in times like these/ Beliefs contagious, spreading disease”. Apparently it takes a man in a Halloween mask playing pop-infused metal to remind us “Them filthy rodents are still coming for your souls”.
GHOST IN FIVE SONGS
While defined by its straight-up heavy metal riff, by the time it hits the Beach Boys-style harmonies of the chorus this song from Ghost’s debut LP proves they are no ordinary metal band.
Year Zero (2013)
A choir intoning “Belial, Behemoth, Beelzebub/ Asmodeus, Satanas, Lucifer” opens this typically anthemic song, revelling in horror film schlock, from Ghost’s second album Infestissumam.
Square Hammer (2016)
Dominated by a psychedelia-viaHammer Horror keyboard line, this favourite from the band’s Popestar EP followed a typically Satanic lyrical theme: “Are you on the square?/ Are you on the level?/ Are you ready to swear right here, right now/ Before the devil?”
Like Dance Macabre and Square Hammer, this epic lead single from the Black Death-themed Prequelle (2018) topped the Billboard Rock Airplay chart. It also garnered a Best Rock Song Grammy nomination.
Hunter’s Moon (2021)
Ghost’s latest single is typical of the balance they strike between heavy, melodic and dramatic and is a tie-in with Halloween Kills, the 12th instalment of the slasher movie franchise.