Papal regalia, on-stage rituals and razzle-dazzle rock’n’roll: Why Ghost are the biggest Satanic band on the planet

“What we’re trying to do is orchestrate a religious event, with all the bombastic nature of a mass, but without the guilt,” explains Tobias Forge, the enigmatic frontman of Swedish metal band Ghost, of a typical gig. “We want you to make you feel good about yourself when you leave.”

For well over a decade, Ghost have been doing a pretty good job of that. Spreading their joyous gospel far and wide, they’re currently in the middle of a massive global arena tour and have just graced the covers of heavy metal bibles Kerrang! and metal hammer. In a few days, they release Reigns, their extravagant fifth album. They are both very big and very weird – fans of ultra-gothic face paint, expensive-looking masks and dressing up like The Pope. A recipe for cult success maybe, but how did Ghost get so popular?

Let’s go back to the start. This eight-piece metal band began in 2006 in the small, lakeside cathedral city of Linkoping in southern Sweden. Theater enthusiast and songwriter Tobias Forge had been cutting his teeth in local glam and death metal bands since the mid Nineties, but he had long dreamt of being part of something bigger.

What he came up with was the airtight concept of anonymous musicians dressed in papal regalia, flamboyant stage shows in the style of Iron Maiden, and classic rock-edged, AOR-inspired gothic metal. Forge’s aim was to bring the razzle-dazzle of Alice Cooper and Kiss to the 21st century, with softly sung lyrics gunning for organized religion and political corruption. In 2008, I have posted three songs on MySpace. Within a year they were signed.

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Since then Ghost (originally known as Ghost BC in the US) have released four critically acclaimed albums, won two Grammys and toured the world with Guns N’ Roses and Alice In Chains. They’ve even sold out the Royal Albert Hall. They’ve got plenty of rock star fans – including Dave Grohl, who produced a 2013 EP – but their most important achievement is the dedicated on-the-ground following they’ve cultivated, spanning hardcore kids, veteran rockers and emo teens.

It would be hard to pinpoint a typical Ghost devotee, due to the impressively broad range of fans they attract. You could say it’s a broad church. “Style-wise you have the metal heads and the not-so-metal heads, and the pop girls,” says Forge. They like starwars, they like comic books, they like horror films. They like rock music with a slight nostalgia touch of the Seventies and Eighties.”

Ghost’s frontman and master of ceremonies is currently between gigs. The band played a sold-out show in Cincinnati last night and Forge is gearing up for Milwaukie in a few hours. After their epic American crusade, there’s a run of shows across the UK and Europe – including the 20,000 capacity O2 Arena – to further share the lavish sounds of Reigns.

Its 12 tracks don’t stray too far from the extravagant metal of their previous records, full of dark sing-alongs and vintage songwriting that sounds as if rock never entered the Nineties. When it comes to inspiration, Forge name-checks artists as diverse as US punk trailblazers Bad Religion, singer-songwriter Tori Amos and Danish heavy metallers King Diamond. It’s a combination that makes Ghost truly unlike any of their contemporaries and Reigns is the sound of a band at their musical peak. Try the gothic groove of single “Call Me Little Sunshine” – a highlight on an album that’s full of them. Not only will it make old fans rejoice, it’s the perfect starting place for the curious and uninitiated.

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Mass appeal: the band Ghost

(Universal Music Group)

“On this record, we are in a kind of Victorian industrialism,” Forge explains of the concept behind the new LP. “It’s the late 1800s and there’s no city that fully embodies that more than London, so it’s set there.”

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In January the band projected huge, eerie images onto landmarks in the capital, including St Paul’s Cathedral and the Tower of London, to promote the record. Forge cites Tim Burton’s Batman and Bram Stoker’s dracula as inspirations for the semi-fantasy world of Reignswhile closing track “Respite on the Spitalfields” is a story of companionship and fear in the time of Jack the Ripper.

“Not only is it a visually pleasing and interesting era, but it’s similar to today in the sense that the world was also going through a big industrial revolution,” explains Forge, channeling this historian within. “People were made redundant, but back then there were a lot of other jobs. Nowadays, for every invention, for every app that some asshole comes up with, there are so many people who are made completely superfluous. That is not good for humanity.”

Speaking of redundancies, Ghost have gone through four incarnations of Forge’s frontman character over the years. First he was Papa Emeritus I, dressed as a wicked Pope with skeletal black and white makeup, then he became Papa Emeritus II, before Papa Emeritus III and Papa Nihil. Each character is dramatically killed off or replaced at the end of each album campaign, with the new character foreshadowing and teasing the theme of the next record. Reigns is the first to see Forge performing as Cardinal Copia aka Papa Emeritus IV, complete with bejeweled robes and immaculate corpse paint.

For the first 11 years of the band’s career, Forge was an anonymous and unnamed frontman, further adding to the mystery of Ghost. But his anonymity of him was brought to an abrupt end in 2017 when four ex-Ghost bandmates tried to sue him for allegedly cheating them out of their share of profits. Forge maintains that they had “no legal contract” and were paid as session musicians. He won the case but in the process lost the mystique he’d meticulously maintained for over a decade. In 2019 he was quoted as having “slightly mixed emotions” about being unmasked. Now he barely gives it a second thought. The unexpected big reveal made little impact on the hold Ghost have on the imaginations of their fans – if anything, it seems to have brought them even more attention.

Rock n regalia: Ghost in 2021

(Universal Music Group)

The fans – who are known as “Ghuleh” if women and “Ghouls” if men – can often be seen dressed in homemade Ghost-inspired attire at gigs; flowing robes, painted faces and ceremonial masks. I ask Forge about his vision and intentions of him for the live shows, known within the community as “Rituals”.

“Well, it’s theatrical. We are sort of the opposite of Pearl Jam, in that way,” he laughs. The dark side of divinity drives Forge’s creativity from him. “I’ve always had an intense relationship with organized, linear religion, let’s put it that way. I’m very fascinated with the art and the history of it, but maybe not so much with the rules and the blame and the guilt.”

Ghost’s flirtations with religion have caused some bumps in the road. In 2018, a Christian group prayed outside a gig in Texas, accusing Ghost of “bringing glory to Satan”, and their second album Infestissumam was because delayed manufacturers refused to print its “blasphemous” artwork. I ask Forge whether this kind of reaction is an issue as they continue to ascend into the rock mainstream. “A lot of that [Christian backlash] sort of disappeared after the Eighties,” he shrugs. “You had the crazies or the pastors on TV who came out and said ‘Don’t go and see Ozzy Osbourne! He’s the devil’s advocate!’ But all that did was sell out the show and maybe sell 500,000 more records. They learned their lesson after that.”

I ask if Forge identifies as a Satanist and without hesitation he opens up. “You know, Christianity is to blame for so much evil. And you have Isis, you know. That’s all in the name of God, right? He goes on to say that modern Satanism is probably closest to his own belief system. “Pop cultural Satanism is all about humanity. It’s all about being able to express yourself and having the ability to. We’re f***ing humanists.” He goes on to say that he’s been invited onto TV debates with various religious leaders but always politely declines. “At the end of the day, I am an entertainer,” he reasons. “We’re here to make people happy, our goal is not to make [religious people] angry.”

It’s true that the world of Ghost is a fun one. There’s a playfulness in their on-stage theatrics, catchy choruses and shock ‘n’ roll celebration. As pop’s major players endlessly share personal content on social media, mystery and myth seem hard to come by. But Ghost have resurrected rock’s arcane and exciting distant past; the epitome of a creative vision well-executed, a cult-following captivated, and the longevity and success that comes with both.

Reigns is released 11 March

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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