All images courtesy of Ghost Facebook (official)
It had been four years since the Swedish metal band Ghost had graced us with a new album, the last one being 2018’s Prequelle. Prequelle marked a transitional period for the band, as the frontman for the album cycle was fulfilled not by a member of the Papa Emeritus lineage, but instead, a protégé by the name of Cardinal Copia. Tobias Forge, the mastermind behind Ghost, has said that the steady succession of Papa to Papa would’ve grown stale with time; so introducing a new character not only added to the lore of this band but kept the narrative rather interesting.
Cardinal Copia had proved himself rightly with an album that was nominated for a Grammy for Best Rock Album, three resulting singles, a world tour, and an opening spot for Metallica on their European stadium tour. As the Prequelle cycle came to a close in March 2020, the Cardinal was anointed to become Papa Emeritus IV.
The themes of Prequelle were rooted in medieval times, the 14th century Black Plague, and mortality. In the years that passed since the album’s release, some of those themes seemed more relatable in modern times due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ghost’s new album, Impera, shifts into more relevant subject matters, such as the rise and fall of empires and world leaders.
Side one opens with a brief instrumental piece called “Imperium.” The military-style drums and harmonizing guitars give off this feeling of majestic triumph, which leads into the album’s proper opener, the rapid-paced “Kaiserion.” This juggernaut of an opener is a song of hope with lyrics about, “Building our empire from the ashes of an old.” It immediately sets the tone of what the album is all about. The next track, “Spillways,” goes into detail about how there is a darkness that exists in us all to make us feel alive.
The next two tracks are the first two singles that were released from the album. “Call Me Little Sunshine” has this vocal hook of, “You never walk alone, you can always reach me,” that is infectiously memorable and easy to sing along to. It is musically reminiscent of their Grammy-winning song, “Cirice,” from the album Meliora; but we’ll touch on that in a minute! “Hunter’s Moon” was first familiarized by Ghost fans when it was featured in the soundtrack for the film Halloween Kills. With its catchy synth hooks, the choir featured in the breakdown is quintessential Ghost. “Watcher in the Sky” (not to be confused with the Genesis song “Watcher of the Skies”) features some heavy chugging guitar riffs and perhaps Papa Emeritus IV’s strongest vocals on the record.
Flipping the record over onto Side two, the instrumental “Dominion” features a gothic sounding horn ensemble that serves as an introduction to the perhaps the most polarizing track of the record, “Twenties.” The song starts with unaccompanied horns with a Latin tinge. When the band kicks in, it is undeniably the heaviest track on the record. It is also the most political Ghost song from a lyrical standpoint. The song is about the corruptness of leaders and dictators, with Papa delivering venomous vocal lines such as, “Listen up, you motherfuckers” (the first time a Ghost song has featured profanity) and “Tell them all this is war, and not fighting a war is for suckers.” With music in general, lyrics can be up for interpretation; but with a line such as, “We’ll be grabbing ’em all by the hoo-has,” one can only imagine what the song is about. If you need further clarification, pull out your vinyl or CD copy and look at the illustrations that accompany each song. Take note of which ex-president is featured in the illustration for this song and it’ll make perfect sense.
Upon looking at the tracklist of the album when it was first announced, I knew that the following track, “Darkness at the Heart of my Love,” would be the ballad of the record; and I was right! Musically, this is perhaps the furthest musical boundary Ghost has pushed on record. With arpeggiated guitar passages, finger snaps, and thumping percussion, I could’ve sworn I was listening to an Imagine Dragons song! The song features a lovely harpsichord and harmonizing guitars to give it a distinguishable Ghost feel, so don’t let the first impression fool you. The next track, “Griftwood,” is almost a call back to “Call Me Little Sunshine,” where the protagonist has reached the individual of power and that individual is giving the protagonist a task. The background vocals at times remind me of the ones that appeared on the first single from Prequelle, “Rats.” To touch on Prequelle a bit further, “Griftwood” reminded me very much of the track “Witch Image” which appears on the album, in terms of the feel and its placement of the album.
A brief guitar instrumental called “A Bite of Passage” serves as an introduction to the closing track of the album, “Respite on the Spitalfields.” Tobias Forge has stated that this song lyrically was partly inspired by the infamous serial killer Jack The Ripper and the crimes he committed. While that influence is evident, the lyric, “Nothing ever lasts forever,” almost signifies that an empire has fallen. Musically, this song is bold with an anthemic chorus, beautiful chorus and all of the melodrama one would expect from a Ghost closing track. It is epic in every sense. The album comes full circle with the outro which features a reprise of the main musical motif from the album’s opener “Imperium.” Just to draw a further reference from the track “Kaisarion,” the final line in the chorus is, “When a paradise is lost go straight to…” The upbeat tempo of that song from the start of the album is a stark contrast to the sorrow “Respite on the Spitalfields” brings. Now that an empire has fallen, where are we to go to?
One of the strongest suits of Ghost albums is that each song serves a purpose. It’s very rare for a Ghost song to come across as filler because it feels like every song fits perfectly. The concept of an album is an element that has at times been forsaken when the CD age came when artists were filling up a disc to the brim with material for the sake of space. Tobias has always been a believer in keeping an album at nine to twelve tracks running at around forty minutes. The individual songs and the instrumental interludes make the pacing of this album so digestible for the listener, and I commend him for that.
Tobias Forge is one that always pays homage and taps into what he admires from other bands into his own work. There is a very strong sense of 1980s infused arena rock on this album, with songs and stylings coming across as very reminiscent of bands such as Iron Maiden, Journey, Bon Jovi, Whitesnake, and even ABBA (they’re Swedish after all, so it makes total sense for that last example!)
The producer of this album is Klas Åhlund, who was in the producer’s chair for Ghost’s 2015 album Meliora. Given that Papa Emeritus III was at the helm for that album, I see Impera as an opportunity to recapture some magic now that Papa Emeritus IV is in command. It very much marks a steady progression in that sense. That is not to discredit Tom Dalgety, the producer of Prequelle from 2018 which featured Cardinal Copia. Maybe that’s my analytical Ghost fanboying going off the radar! Like I mentioned earlier, one of the singles from Meliora was “Cirice” and it proved to win a Grammy. Let’s see if Papa Emeritus IV will bring home one this time!
The album artwork was done by Zbigniew Bielak, who has been responsible for all of Ghost’s album covers since 2013’s Infestissumam (except for the 2013 EP If You Have Ghost). The cover depicts a rendering of English occultist Aleister Crowley. Some of the futuristic details of the cover very much reminded me of the artwork found on Meliora. Given Zbigniew’s longevity with the band, it’s possible that he is officially what Derek Riggs was to Iron Maiden.
Since my YouTube channel’s name is The Record Spinner, it is obvious that I went for the vinyl format of this album. The presentation is absolutely beautiful, with all of the intricate details of the album cover being blown up in its glorious 12” x 12” format. The vinyl comes with a twenty-eight-page booklet with illustrations for each song, all the lyrics, credits, and a band photo consisting of Papa Emeritus IV, and two Nameless Ghouls (they look absolutely amazing and fresh for this album cycle!). The vinyl itself has been pressed at GZ Vinyl in the Czech Republic, and it has been mastered by Joe Nino-Hernes at Sterling Sound. The mastering is huge sounding and the vinyl itself is pressed nicely. Depending on where you purchase the vinyl, certain retailers and chains have offered exclusive colored variants that come with extras, such as a slipmat (Loma Vista), stickers (indie record stores), posters (Walmart), and album art prints (Target). Ghost fans don’t go lightly when it comes to the collecting frenzy of their products, whether it be physical media or merchandise alone; and here I am with three vinyl pressings of the album (Loma Vista, indie, and Target) so I have been bitten by the bug!
Aside from their eccentric yet theatrical stage presence, there is an obvious Satanic theme to Ghost’s lyrics. As time has passed, the Satanic overtones have become a bit watered down. In case you need an example, play any song from their 2010 debut, Opus Eponymous, and the influence is obvious. Lyrics such as “Lucifer, we are here, for your grace, evil one,” and “The Devil’s power is the greatest one,” often leave you thinking, “Hmmm I wonder what the next song will be about.” The lyrics of Impera are cleverly crafted to add interpretation to any given listener; but for any long-time Ghost fan, they will sense that the imagery is still there and how Satanic concepts can be interpreted. Is the message watered down to appeal to a wider audience? Perhaps. Is Impera their most accessible album? To my ears, yes. This also leads to some of the backlash Impera has received from some fans. This new twist in direction has left some fans wishing for the “old Ghost” to emerge again. This is a band where each album has had its own distinguishable character to be different from the previous ones. Being amongst Ghost fandom almost reminds me of how KISS fans must’ve felt when an album as cinematic as Destroyer came out, and bore barely any resemblance to the previous three studio albums that came before. Ultimately, that album stood the test of time and it is now regarded as their best one. Does that mean that Impera will be regarded as their best album? Is this their Destroyer? Only time will tell. All I can say is I am a Ghost fan who is along for the ride and is excited to see what the future lies for this phenomenon that started out as an underground band that is now filling up arenas and topping charts around the world.
Interested in learning more about Ghost’s newest album, Impera? Hit the link below:
Be sure to check out the full archives of The Record Spinner, by Dylan Peggin, here: https://vwmusicrocks.com/the-record-spinner-archives/