Together with the North American release of Electric Wizard's occult-oriented doom epic Black Masses, another decidedly devilish entry has arrived from across the Atlantic in the form of the Swedish band Ghost. Both bands have their roots in old-school metal and psychedelic rock, but where Wizard goes for the darkest, heaviest sound imaginable, this group aims for a much lighter vintage pop/rock vibe. But that doesn’t mean their lyrics are all warm and fuzzy… in fact, they’re about as evil as they come. At first glance, their first full-length album Opus Eponymous may look like a fun horror act with a satanic hook, but these guys definitely aren't kidding around – they're as serious as a heart attack about their devilish dealings, and the sense of otherworldly mystery that surrounds them (all six members keep their identities secret) spills over into their music. Read on for taste…
Clocking in at a short, sharp 35 minutes, Opus Anonymous is a potent cocktail of early metal like Black Sabbath or Judas Priest, '60s psychedelic atmosphere reminiscent of Pink Floyd, with riffs and melodies clearly inspired by devil-rockers like Mercyful Fate. The lyrics about blood sacrifice, mass murder, and summoning the forces of darkness wouldn't be out of place on an early ‘90s black metal album – which makes it all the more surprising to hear them delivered in a vocal style that’s almost sweetly romantic at times, with rich multi-part harmonies, and none of the guttural growls or rasps you'd normally associate with material like this. It's an interesting departure, and in a weird way it suits the gothic atmosphere – which is enhanced even further by dark and eerie organ passages (adding to the whole black mass vibe) and subtle ambient touches. Yeah, so it's hard to believe that “subtle” is a word anyone would associate with a band whose skull-painted vocalist looks like Bishop Beelzebub and delivers lyrics like “Our father who art in hell,” but they really don't overplay their image at the expense of the music.
The album opens on a ceremonial note with the vintage-sounding organ solo “Deus Culpa” before getting down to business with the mighty rolling bass line and simple but infectious guitar riff of “Con Clavi Con Dio.” Again, the clean higher-range vocals will come as a bit of a surprise if you aren't expecting something so light and poppy, especially since they plunge immediately into the satanic lyrics (“Lucifer, we are here for your grace...”) but it's a really fun and energetic track, even if it ends a little too soon. “Ritual” goes deep and dark with a classic mid-tempo chug, but features vocal harmonies so playful and cheerful-sounding that the lyrics about human sacrifice might destroy your irony-meter.
“Elizabeth” takes on the age-old metal theme of Countess Bathory, striving for a new spin by suggesting that the infamous serial killer was in league with Satan (“Her acts of cruelty and her lust for blood/Makes her one of us”), but it ultimately comes off a bit forced and awkward. “Stand By Him,” despite a darkly romantic theme, is actually one of the more edgy tracks, with punchy rhythm, a hefty bass line and a brooding organ-filled bridge. “Satan Prayer” sports the best riffs on the album, as well as the most understated and sensual vocals. “Death Knell” is another strong repeater, with the moodiest tone, enhanced by the sound of thunder and bells. With its rumbling bass and thundering riffs, “Prime Mover” is probably the heaviest track on the album, and you can really feel the King Diamond/Mercyful Fate influence here, especially in the vocals. The fast-paced instrumental “Genesis” brings the ceremony to a close in a flurry of distorted harpsichord arpeggios, prog-rock lead guitar and soaring old-school synths before going out on a folksy acoustic note.
This album – and this band – is pretty tough to label, and even harder to wrap your brain around at first, since they tumble together diverse styles that shouldn't rightfully belong together. But weirdly enough, the formula actually seems to work most of the time, and it’s a lot of fun to listen to. Sure, it's hard not to smirk a little bit when such overtly and sincerely satanic themes are brought to life in a musical style that’s so… well, perky. At times you can almost picture Shaun Cassidy's demonic alter-ego belting out a couple of these tunes... well, maybe. But thanks to Ghost's excellent chops, they manage to sell it without slipping into absurdity, and the end product is pretty damn groovy.