Review: For heavy metal’s Ghost, it’s always fright night

Papa Emeritus III, right and one of the Nameless Ghouls of Ghost, Swedish heavy metal band at the Mayan Theatre in Los Angeles.

Papa Emeritus III, right and one of the Nameless Ghouls of Ghost, Swedish heavy metal band at the Mayan Theatre in Los Angeles.

(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

Doom comes in a variety of flavors. The Swedish band Ghost prefers its heavy metal to be loud but melodic, scary but inclusive.

As the enigmatic group played Monday to a full house at the Mayan, it hardly mattered that Halloween was just days away. For Ghost, every night is fright night.

On two guitars, bass, drums and a keyboard were five silver-masked demons known only as Nameless Ghouls. And singing at center stage was the ominous Papa Emeritus III, dressed in pope-like attire of black-and-gold robes and a tall pointed miter headdress, his face covered in black-and-white corpse paint.

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One by one, they marched onstage to the recorded sound of Jocelyn Pook’s “Masked Ball,” a haunting, meditative track used by director Stanley Kubrick as ceremonial orgy music in “Eyes Wide Shut.” Then came spooky live organ and riffing electric guitars on “Spirit” — the first of eight songs performed from the band’s startlingly accessible new album, “Meliora,” released in August.


“This is a fantastic show,” insisted the band’s high priest half seriously during a pause in the night’s nearly two-hour set.

Despite the vaguely satanic attire and persistent wall of fog, Ghost is not the darkest or heaviest of metal. Its sound is more goth than bone-crushing. Songs could drift into prog or, on “From the Pinnacle to the Pit,” even approach a mood closer to the modern hard rock of Alice in Chains.

The band got heavier on “Ritual,” building toward a stretched-out song-closing attack of guitars. “Majesty” had the slicing groove of an AC/DC riff. Papa Emeritus III swung a metal incense ball to the driving, threatening beat and tough guitar passages on “Con Clavi Con Dio.”

He officially joined the band this year and is the third singer to fill that role, which is part of the genius of Ghost (formerly known in the U.S. as Ghost B.C.). Other band members have come and gone, but the image and sound remain unchanged. Even Dave Grohl once sat in with the band, disguised as a Nameless Ghoul.

The band was at home amid the old Mayan décor, while the costumes were the dominant visual in the Ghost stage production, which offered no actual fire with the brimstone. It was impressive considering veteran acts such as Slayer and Rammstein don’t leave home without the pyro. For “Body and Blood,” Papa Emeritus III did bring out two female volunteers in nuns’ habits and sent them mingling into the crowd accompanied by solemn organ and snarling guitars.

After a brief exit, the singer returned to the stage minus the pope gear, and was dressed in spats and tails, looking more like the doomed hero of 1920’s “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” or a zombiefied “emcee” from “Cabaret.”

Soon after came the new album’s “Cirice,” representing the band at its most dynamic, with overlapping creep-show guitars (like a slowed down “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Metallica) and crushing beat. The frontman sang: “Can’t you see that you’re lost without me? / I can feel the thunder that’s breaking in your heart.”

Candelabras were brought out and placed flickering around the stage, and the Nameless Ghouls suddenly appeared with acoustic guitars. It was one for the ladies. Ghost’s high priest noted that “a lot of our songs are about sensuality.... Do you know about the birds and the bees?”

During “Jigolo Har Megiddo,” fans clapped a hard, excited beat as he sang: “I am the one who comes richly endowed / Harvesting crops of fields that others have plowed / I am the one, lascivious.”

The message was as transparent as the intentionally ridiculous lyrics of Spinal Tap’s “Sex Farm” (“Plowin’ through your bean field / Plantin’ my seed”). Some musical ideas are truly international.


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