Until recently – and, as most great metal controversies are, at the hands of some deliciously messy legal troubles – the identity of Ghost’s polarising, larger-than-life frontman remained the foundation-caked fever dream of conspiracy theorists everywhere. There were rumours that Tobias Forge (of Subvision and Magna Carta Cartel fame) was behind the robe, but anonymity was sacred within the band, and they’d stop at nothing to protect theirs. But alas, March 2017 saw his former bandmates declare a mutiny, and Forge was unearthed as the puppet-master behind the garish and ghastly Papa Emeritus (in all his increasingly more sinister incarnations).
Not before Ghost had established themselves as the most important narrative-driven metal titans on the planet, however.
Some decried them as an industry plant – though Forge had been toying with the project since ’06, their 2010 breakthrough was sudden and substantial, racking up festival slots like skittles and more five-star reviews than you could shake a crucifix at. For a band so unremittingly enshrined in secrecy, there’s no way that could’ve been natural… Right?
Maybe. Except unlike most bands shot to stardom on the mighty heels of a major label’s budget, Ghost had the skills, work ethic and, perhaps most importantly, songs to do it on their own. Critics were floored by the thick and fiery rock’n’roll grit of the independently released Opus Eponymous. That their backstory was virtually nonexistent forced listeners to establish their own narratives (and they did, so often with grandiose character arcs that outweighed the context on which they were based). And their live shows – buoyant, brash, and marked by towering sets and lavish costumes – were instant sell-outs from the onset. Without so much as a name to their talents, Ghost had the metal scene en masse completely and utterly whipped.
Which brings us to the question many have tried (and failed) to answer: how the hell did they do it!?
Well… They didn’t.
Allow us to explain. Bands like KISS, Slipknot and Gwar have always turned heads on aesthetic alone. Anything that takes the listener out of their real world and drops them into an alternate one where mysticism and opulence are the norm is something that crowds will naturally gravitate towards. Because let’s face it, the world is fucked right now – we’ll take anything that can help us ignore it for a while.
But where Ghost set themselves apart is in that other world. It’s a twisted and twitch-inducing mass for the malevolent, led by a skull-faced pope in blood red papal mitre and a troupe of nameless, faceless deviants known only as the Nameless Ghouls (fun fact: Dave Grohl has been one). Each album era would see a new manifestation of Papa Emeritus emerge; on 2018’s Prequelle – their first since Forge’s identity leaked – the character was nixed, only to be replaced by the far more corrupt, far less merciful Cardinal Copia. By consistently evolving what little architecture Ghost had pieced together for their narrative, they’re able to keep the story feeling fresh. Nobody can get sick of the shtick when it’s flipped on its head every two years.
And though authentic to a tee (not once have their ritualistic live shows seen them break character), Ghost have never taken themselves all that seriously. They’ve covered songs by The Beatles and ABBA. There are glittering glam-rock synths all over Prequelle. Hell, they have a record named Popestar, for Satan’s sake! The niche is at once unnervingly harrowing and charmingly vaudevillian. Speaking exclusively to Download, Forge describes his character as “a little bit of Fred Astaire mixed with Jacques Clouseau.”
Much of the character’s base also plays into a common fantasy for most average punters: power. Nobody wants to be a Nameless Ghoul, but we all want to be that imperial deity up front. Never a band to spell their lyricisms out to the listener, Ghost offers them a chance to funnel themselves into Copia through the listening experience. Forge knows and embraces that – after all, he’s in the same boat.
“I think in many ways, Cardinal Copia is a lot like what I wish I could’ve been, or wish I was. Unfortunately, there are rules and regulations in the world that stop you from being like that… But you can be that character for two hours every night, and I guess that’s enough. A lot of what I’m doing with Ghost is what I always wanted to do as a kid – I wanted to be in a theatrical, larger-than-life band with a horror image and some cool mac daddy leading the drill.”
That link to childhood is also imperative, especially when you consider the climate in which Ghost arose. For most of us, when we think about other bands in the legion of Ghost, we think of our youth. KISS were likely the first shock-rock band we were introduced to as lil’ tikes, and a Slipknot addiction was a rite of passage for edgy tweens in the mid-aughts. Ghost are the natural next step on that path: they’re comic enough for the imagery to pop, but mature enough to keep us sticking around for the music afterwards. KISS’ influence on Forge was vital in establishing the aesthetic narrative of Ghost, but sonically, it was black metal troupes like Blasphemy that roped him in. He revels in the subconscious nostalgia that’s hardwired in all of us, and not just visually – it's in Ghost’s core of mystery.
“I grew up as a black and death metal fan in a time before the internet. Back then, you had very little to go on – especially with the darker sort of bands. I’d look back at bands like Venom and Mayhem and Blasphemy – bands where you’d only seen maybe one or two pictures of them, because there wasn’t any more than that. You’d see one or two interviews in print, and maybe a video, and you had to fill in all the blanks. All you knew about them were the little quotes in magazines, and lore. There were a lot of rumours.
“Obviously, all of that changed with the internet. Now, you can just click on anything and know everything about anything you want. And I wanted Ghost to be different. I wanted Ghost to be more in line with the sort of bands that I liked before the internet, where you had to use your imagination and you had to wonder a little.”
Cardinal Copia and Nameless Ghouls
So that’s where we come in. We can dig ourselves into a Reddit rabbithole and binge all the conspiracy theories we want, but in essence, every Ghost fan will have a different interpretation of Ghost’s lore. It’s a living, breathing Choose Your Own Adventure book for millennial metalheads. And that lack of content, paradoxically, has us starving for more. Because we’re living in a generation of addiction; instant gratification as the norm. By fervently denigrating it, Ghost feed off society’s innate desperation for #content.
“In the ABC school of rock,” Forge chuckles, “It’s part of the natural go-to for an artist to have a very active Instagram account and a very active Twitter account; you have to be super available and updating at all times about everything at all. It’s in the mental lingo of people to do that nowadays, and it’s very hard to get someone to do it less, because that means they’ll get less people interacting with them. On the contrary, I see it as though part of our success has been because we gave people less!
“Part of why we liked all the bands that we liked was because they actually had a private life, y’know? If you’re constantly doing things to interact with the outside world, you’re going to end up very, very drained after a while. That was definitely something that goes with the whole concept of Ghost, in terms of how I wanted this to be presented to the world and how we were going to communicate with the world. I mean obviously, we have an Instagram account and we do post things from time to time, but y’know, it’s not a personal thing. I won’t tell you where I’m having dinner tonight.”
All the trickery and serpentine storytelling aside, the biggest factor in Ghost’s catapult to the top of the food chain is that they’re just a great band, both to listen to on record and catch from the pit. Because at the end of the day, Forge and co. actively rebel against their very concept. Their aesthetic is strewn in eeriness, satanic imagery and crypticism, but their end goal isn’t to suck you into some hellish cult – it’s to leave you with a big ol’ smile on your dial.
“I always wish for people seeing us to experience some sort of euphoria,” Forge declares. “I always wish for people seeing us to experience some sort of euphoria. Euphoria as in the, y’know, I want them to be enlightened and pleased with what they’re seeing, and going away with a smile on their face. I guess that’s also one of the differences between us and a lot of bands that have operated in a similar framing; with a lot of horror bands and a lot of black metal bands with a similar image, the show is usually all sort of centred around the idea of very aggressive music and a negative sort of outlook. I just want people to leave the show with a smile on their face!”
If you’re keen to see what the fuss is all about for yourself, Ghost will be caressing souls with the incandescent opulence of their live show at Download Australia 2019. Grab a ticket here and your best crucifix – you might need it for a post-set exorcism or two…
Written by Matt Doria, a writer who’s all about the three P’s: pizza, punk, and p…dogs.