Thursday, January 19, 2012

Profane Sacrament

The lights dim, and the scent of incense wafts into the hall as chanting starts to rise within the room. At the back of the stage is a triptych of banners all resembling the stained glass of a cathedral, but depicting pagan iconography. Five masked hooded figures step out from the wings and take their instruments upon the stage. As the chants reach a crescendo and die off towards silence a keyboard sounds a tune, its frequency reminiscent of a church organ. It lingers, playing a vaguely baroque arrangement, and then modernity sets in -- the other hooded men join the keyboardist with electric guitars, bass and drums. The tune approaches its spooky conclusion and a figure steps into the center of the stage. He's dressed in a bishop's vestments, but upon closer inspection, the crosses are inverted, and his face is adorned with corpse paint. He swings a thurible bellowing incense into the hall as the guitars commence a melodious 70's rock hymn. The singer raises his disconcertingly angelic voice to sound a paean to the majesty of Satan. This is metal at its most theatrical and transcendent. This is Ghost.

Last night they kicked off their "13 Dates of Doom" tour at the Bowery Ballroom in New York and I was fortunate to be among the initiates. Ghost is one of the brighter lights in current heavy music, delivering a pleasing melodic sound that stands at the crossroads of Thin Lizzy and Pentagram. They pair the 70s rock sound with a theatrical sensibility that descends in a straight line from Alice Cooper, through King Diamond, and out into the present day through A Nameless Ghoul. Oh yeah, A Nameless Ghoul is their lead singer, and the rest of the band, those hooded figures, they're all anonymous. According to the band's publicity bio:
Ghost is the name of a devil worshipping ministry that - in order to spread their unholy gospels and, furthermore, trick mankind into believing that the end is ultimately a good thing - have decided to use the ever so popular rock music medium as a way to achieve their ends. .... Standing motionless and anonymous beneath the painted faces, hoods and robes which their sect demand, the six nameless ghouls of Ghost deliver litanies of sexually pulsating heavy rock music and romantic lyrics, which glorify and glamorise the disgusting and sacrilegious, with the simple intention to communicate a message of pure evil via the most effective device they can find: Entertainment.
Foreknowledge of the catchy melodies behind the Satanic lyrics, or of the band's singular stage presence via their abundant YouTube footprint still doesn't adequately convey the full strength of the experience of being at a live Ghost performance. Through the extraordinary use of costumes, make-up, lighting design and props like the priestly incense and stained glass backdrop, the band taps into a sense memory of Catholicism and distorts it through the gleefully sacreligious prism of rock music and blasphemous lyrics. This is augmented by the skillful acting of A Nameless Ghoul, whose understated gestures resemble a pastor at mass leading his flock. Except this pastor will occasionally gesture with smug and self-satisfied grins at the sinful exclamations of his flock, and make subtle filthy sexual gestures with his hands while conducting the voices of his choir.

Ghost swept me into a rapture I haven't experienced at a concert since I was much younger and much less worldly. They stirred ancient and long buried remnants of my Catholic school upbringing, where first Friday mass was compulsory, and washed them in the pure fun of great rock n roll in a room with hundreds of others feeling the same joyful song. Several times I felt my face making a wide, surprised glee-filled smile, most especially at the show's conclusion where A Nameless Ghoul performed the kind of transubstantiation ritual that could bring hilarious closure to the journey taken by any recovering Catholic turned Athiest.

Don't take my word for it. Get their album, watch their videos, and if Ghost comes to your town, buy the ticket and receive the sacrament. You will be purified. You will be redeemed.

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