Why are Ghost so massive in America?
We travelled to Los Angeles to see Ghost's two sold-out shows and it sure was an eye-opening experience
Sat on the corner of Wiltshire Boulevard and Western Aveneue, in the Koreatown district of Los Angeles, is The Wiltern Theatre. A dirty, peppermint-coloured patina covers the entire exterior of the Pellissier Building, of which the Wiltern is a part. It's recognised as one of the finest examples of art deco architecture in the entire United States, and looks like something plucked from a frame of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Much like the band's last London show at the historic Palladium theatre, a venue well-known for its beauty and the recurring home of the Royal Variety Performance, this is a prestigious place to play and the perfect setting for a two-night residency from Ghost.
The Popestar tour named after the band's current EP, has been hauling its way across North America for the last few weeks – collecting old and new fans along the way.
Arriving at the venue on the first night, you can’t help but feel the palpable excitement. Aside from the venue's awesome décor, the crowd are pumped. A couple of slightly low-rent Papas and Ghouls walk around in the foyer queueing for merch or paying for pricey, but ridiculously large, measures at the bar.
Critically-acclaimed openers Deafheaven are delivering a blistering black-metal-meets-post-rock set that runs to a total of four expansive songs. Three from last year's incredible New Bermuda and finishing with the Adult Swim Singles club jam Kettle Onto The Coil. It's harshly punishing and epically chill in equal measures, and the crowd are stoked with a few looking slightly bemused.
As Allegri's Miserer mei, Deus starts to play over the PA, the tone shifts and people are visibly hyped.
The lights drop to two sole red glows on either side of the stage, and as The Masked Ball from Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut echoes throughout this incredible room everyone falls silent. Suddenly the band are onstage playing the opening of Square Hammer and as the first verse arrives Papa Emeritus III appears at the back of the stage in a flash of light.
This is the thing, over the course of three brilliant albums and a couple of EPs, America has embraced Ghost in a way not seen in a while. First off the band has struggled here; the overtly Satanic and occult themes of their lyrics and artwork made it tough, and being banned from many chain stores and a lot of mainstream radio did them no favours. So the rise feels more real, more organic, and that may explain why the crowd here over the next two nights seem so fervent. They are fully invested. When Papa Emeritus asks how many people have seen them before there is a deafening roar. When he asks how many have not seen them before, the band are met with an almost equal cheer from the newly converted. We can try and analyse why the band demands this, you could maybe draw up family trees of bands like Sabbath, Priest and Pentagram. Venn diagrams of classic rock intersecting with death metal, psychedelia and prog. We could write lists of bands and artists that have become huge here on the back of spectacular theatrics, like Alice Cooper and Kiss. But it all seems a little pointless if you fail to take into account the band's songs. Ghost have so many great hook-laden songs it's an inevitability that they’ll achieve great things. Even with the stage personas and overt occultism that some see as gimmicky. (It isn’t.)
If you look past the Hammer Horror-eque façade, you can see that there is a depth and knowledge to the thematic aspect of the band. Not many bands can deliver songs that reference biblical themes of a coming antichrist, the church's rampant disgust and abuse of women, and masonic key words with such tongue-in-cheek gusto and in such a catchy way. Before the encore of Monstrance Clock each night, Papa gives a long monologue about the importance and magickal nature of the female orgasm, he is accompanied only by a looping organ riff which interjects with comedic stabs at appropriate points giving the routine an almost Tom Waits vibe. On the first night this monologue see’s Papa pacing the stage, and at one point lounging at the front of the stage as he addresses various members of the audience, engaging them and making this part of the show feel informal and impromptu. It runs for a few minutes, is well-paced and funny, but on the second night he expands and elucidates, drawing it out for longer as he finds his groove and it feels like we’re watching some bizarre, dark, stand-up routine. People are transfixed, proving that this is a show in every sense of the word. The banter may be as rehearsed as lines in a play, but he improvises and tweaks it constantly delivering comedy, and in a rare political moment, he tells people on the day of the US election that they should vote and say ‘No’ without reference to either candidate, but it seems obvious to which orange-skinned buffoon he is referring to.
As for the songs, there is an identical 16-song setlist on both nights. The residency is being filmed, so the lack of variety in the set makes sense for the need to cut and compile the best footage. There’s the surprising omission of the Roky Erickson cover If You Have Ghosts that has become such a live favourite in the UK, but it shows how crowds can vary in different countries. But then, it's also testament to the band's catalogue that they don’t need either it or any of the covers from the recent Popestar EP.
So what we get each night is a broad mix of songs from the last couple of albums with Ritual, Con Clavi Con Dio and Stand By Him from their Opus Eponymous debut. Halfway through there is the usual costume change from the frontmen's initial papal garb to the more louche Lothario look, and a recording of Spöksonat heralds the third act of the show. Throughout the show, the lighting is fantastically dramatic; illuminating a simple but effective Satanic stained glass backdrop. There is pyro at key points, but it's not overused, and confetti cannons full of reflective ribbons and 666 dollar notes adorned with Papa's face. If this all seems very much about the enigmatic frontman, it is not. The Nameless Ghouls that make up the band, in their matching masks and clothing, identified only by different alchemical symbols, are incredible. There has been so much speculation about who the band are, or who they’ve included at various times, it all adds to the mystique of a genuinely incredible band. They are tight and fly through the set which is punctuated with guitar and keytar solos that Papa graciously applauds each time, leading the crowd to do the same.
We're looking forward to seeing the footage of the show, if only to work out if Papa was actually appearing from and dropping into the floor or if we were just drunk and imagined it. All in all, two incredible nights from a band that are going to continue on with their spectacular rise. Hail!
All photos by Stephanie Cabral.