Monday, August 17, 2015

Double Take: Ghost - Meliora

Chris C - Gimmicks in music can be tough. On the one hand, every band needs an identity they can point to, something that makes them stand out from the pack of bands that are doing the same sort of thing they are. Gimmicks are important, because they're an easy way to identify a band, and to make an impact on the listening public. On the other hand, a gimmick can be problematic, because if you aren't careful, that is the only thing that people will remember you for. It's a thin line between the two, and many bands have found themselves on the wrong side of history.

Ghost is one of those bands that teeters right on the edge. Their first album was a wonderful, tongue-in-cheeck take on occult rock that was both light and dark at the same time. They were occult, but sunny enough that their satanic image went down easy. Their second record was something far different, a bit of a mess that dug so deep into the gimmick that the songs were short-changed by the image.

"Meliora" is, thankfully, a step back in the right direction. The most noticeable difference is that Ghost is back to being a guitar-based band, with these songs all being built from big, vintage riffs. The guitar tones are once again spectacular, bringing just the right amount of grit to the sound, chugging away with a perfect blend of vintage warmth and modern crunch. It is seriously one of the best guitar tones I've heard on record.

But what is important are the songs, and Ghost delivers far better this time around. "Cirice" was the first track released, and remains the best song on the album. It's creepy intro is highly reminiscent of Slayer's "South Of Heaven", but once the song gets going, the riff is a crushing groove, and it pans out to a sweeping chorus that is as good as anything Ghost has written yet. It's a pure distillation of dark rock, sunny melody, and tight songwriting.

Ghost brings more hooks to the table this time, with "From The Pinnacle To The Pit", "Majesty", and "Absolution" all offering sticky choruses that will long be remembered. The fun experiment of the album is "He Is", which is a gorgeous acoustic based song that brings to mind a satanic version of Crosby, Still, and Nash. The last album found Ghost experimenting in ways that didn't play to their strengths, but this is how it's done right. It's the kind of subversive pop nugget that Ghost is capable of.

There is one glaring problem, and that is "Mummy Dust". That song is pointless, and nothing more than a single riff. The vocals are virtually non-existent, and there isn't a hint of melody. How it made the record is a bit of a mystery to me, and only further reminds me that Ghost still has a ways to go in refining their identity.

That being said, "Meliora" is by far the best Ghost record yet. From top to bottom, it's their strongest collection of songs, and shows me that Ghost is moving in the right direction. Falling victim to a gimmick is easy, and Ghost comes very close at times to buying in too much to their satanic schtick, but "Meliora" is strong enough to overcome that. This is the best Ghost has yet been, and sets up a strong future.

D:M - So here's the deal - Ghost has done such a good job of promoting their stage image and theatrics that they've become a prisoner of it. It's easy for dedicated journalists and, you know, us, to judge Ghost on the merits of their music because we understand that the stage gimmick is just that, and that the music is a separate product altogether.  It's actually surprisingly akin to the idea behind Alice Cooper, that stage and sound were two different things and that if you ponied up the cash to go see Alice live, he was going to give you something more than just the record you knew. 

Ghost, unfortunately for them (and this is before I actually talk about the music at all,) has been cast into the same pit as GWAR, where the grandiose performance is virtually inseparable from the music.  Which is fine if you're GWAR and one merely exists as a conveyance for the other and vice-versa, but Ghost find themselves dominated by their own successful marketing, which has led to the band being largely misunderstood.

Ghost's fundamental disconnect with casual fans, and apparently Kerry King (and if I'm being honest, me a little bit,) is that the music and the image aren't supposed to match.  For all that Ghost looks like the most evil band this side of the Ural mountains, the music is actually full of tropes that filled the back corners of touchy-feely singaling psychedelic rock in the late sixties.  Don't misunderstand, that's in no way a bad thing; in fact, "Meliora" is the band's best album to date, and it's not particularly close.  The hook of "Circle" is wonderful, and it's one of overflowing handfuls of catchy moments on the album.  "Meliora" runs the gamut through all kind of rock genres, some working better than others, but in total it's a pretty good project.  As we talked about though, the difficulty is that it's not what the casual observer thinks they're going to hear when they pick up the album.

Ghost would be equally at home sharing a tour bill with Orchid, Monster Magnet, Graveyard, Rob Zombie or Amon Amarth, that's the kind of versatility we're talking about.  The band's rock chops on "Meliora" are actually better than their metal chops, which are solid but not as well constructed as the rousing singalong choruses and swinging melodies of their jaunty, borderline arena rock tunes.  Yet, with all the paint and satanic mockup, it's hard to meet them on that level.

Cooper faced a lot of this image typecasting, too, and it probably held him back from being on the same strata as some of the real heavyweights of his era.  Of course, he did it in an era when 1) you didn't have to be super aggressive with your presentation across social media to be noticed, and 2) in the absence of social media, it was easier to control your image.  So Ghost is sort of stuck in a Catch-22, but all those things aside, "Meliora" is still a pretty good record and also, I bet, a pretty good live show.

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