House of Blues Spends a Tuesday Night in Hell With Ghost

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Ghost, Tribulation
House of Blues
April 26, 2016

It’s hard not to tip your mitre to Ghost for achieving one of the unlikeliest success stories in recent rock history. Another group of masked and face-painted Scandinavians singing songs about Satan? Heavily influenced by AOR sops like Kansas and Blue Öyster Cult? How did this band become big enough to pack House of Blues full of burly headbangers singing along to every sacramental mockery?

It’s been a slow and steady rise to prominence, and it all started with their look. Hard rock and metal enjoy no shortage of devils, but Ghost is the first and only group to be fronted by a skull-faced pope. Papa Emeritus, as he’s known, is the star of a wide variety of beautifully evil T-shirts and posters, enthusiastically adopted early on by tastemakers such as Dave Grohl and Phil Anselmo.

The group’s mild, throwback singalongs are made all the more subversive by their Luciferian lyrics and ghoulish garb, and their latest album, last year’s Meliora, became their first to crack the Billboard Top 10 in the U.S. Over the past eight years, they’ve officially become the biggest Satanic sensation since Marilyn Manson, leading to the question: How seriously are we supposed to take these guys?

The huge crowd inside House of Blues on Tuesday night was a pretty good indicator that the tunes, at least, are being taken quite seriously indeed. The room was already full when opening act Tribulation took the stage, and things only got more stuffed and sweaty from there. Tribulation is another Swedish act, featuring death-metal growls over some rather majestic classic-rock stylings.

There were some death-rock and AOR melodicism mixed in there, too, and it was interesting to see an ostensible heavy-metal band embrace skinny jeans and crushed velvet over the traditional leather. There was a relatively odd mishmash of styles going on up there, with bassist/vocalist Johannes Andersson croaking away as guitarist Jonathan Hultén positively pranced in his corpsepaint. The cognitive dissonance they engendered made Tribulation as good a fit for a Ghost tour as anybody.

After a long liturgical interlude, the masked, horned forms of Ghost’s Nameless Ghouls appeared at last, bathed in a hellish glow. The crowd’s response was immediate and enthusiastic as the band chugged into “Spirit” from Meliora. It was amazing to hear the hirsute Satanist behind me scream along so lustily to such a sweet-voiced, throwback novelty, and he damn sure wasn’t alone. All night, the evil-looking band would rock rather gently, but their scary-looking fans were way, way into it.

Papa Emeritus’s theatrical trappings kept things interesting. The demonic clergyman conducted his choir of adherents with much flair, swinging a censer and revealing just a hint of royal purple from within his blackened vestments. He commanded the crowd effortlessly, as any evil pope should do, but his faceless bandmates pulled off enough stage moves to invest their masks with some personality as well.

Halfway through, Il Papa lost the hat and reappeared dressed as some kind of Enlightenment-Era nobleman in a waistcoat — possibly even more evil than before. It was hard to blame him, as House of Blues had become a hellish sweatbox by the time the big sing-along “Cirice” was trotted out.

That one ended up as the most evil-sounding song of the night, followed as it was by the baroque guitar harmonies of “Absolution,” which featured a highly amusing keytar solo. That surely got a smile and a chuckle out of even the most cynical metalhead in the crowd. Ghost unplugged next for “If You Have Ghosts,” a tasteful and rather unexpected Roky Erickson cover, before going full Munsters on “Ghuleh/Zombie Queen.” The band’s love of Queen shone through brightly on that one, with its Flash Gordon dual-guitar riffs.

The crowd stayed thick until the end, with nobody wanting to miss out on the sing-along to “Ritual.” It’s possible that people are still waiting in line at House of Blues to buy merch this morning, because business was brisk as all hell. Maybe the facepaint demands the comparison, but it was hard to come away from a Ghost show without being reminded of KISS — that relatively hard-rocking juggernaut of merchandising that Ghost has clearly studied well.

The Swedes are certainly handier with a guitar and a microphone than their hairier American forebears, but strip away the cartoon Satanism and the appeal is the same — good-time sing-alongs with a strong, theatrical edge to them. How seriously you’d like to take that sort of thing is up to you, but that merch-table queue proves Ghost is doing just fine for themselves, thank you very much — with or without you.

Personal Bias: Blastbeats strongly preferred.

The Crowd: Heavy-metal types who sing in the shower.

Overheard in the Crowd: “Well, now, I worship Satan, but not at the expense of Jesus Christ.”

Random Notebook Dump: Good Lord, it was hot in there! House of Blues really ought to get that a/c checked out.  

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