As one cycle ends, another begins. The flamboyant, dancing Cardinal Copia has been anointed Papa Emeritus IV and the plague-ridden doom of the 14th century is gone. Taking place hundreds of years after Prequelle, Tobias Forge and his band of Nameless Ghouls, otherwise known as psychedelic doom rock popsters Ghost, leave the rats behind as latest chapter Impera (Spinefarm/Loma Vista) tells of new empires built from the ashes of the old.
After the methodically layered instrumental ‘Imperium’ finishes setting the scene, the real fun begins with Impera‘s true opener, ‘Kaisarion’. Bright and optimistic, and not too far removed from legendary Canadian prog gods Rush, lyrics such as “far away from the stench of the heavens” prove we’re still in reassuringly dark territory. Propelled by keyboards which owe some level of debt to Bon Jovi‘s ‘Runaway’, ‘Spillways’ (run-offs which stop dams from overflowing – but in this case meaning something that allows the darkness inside us to find an escape) boasts the first of many instantly uplifting choruses.
Taking a more sinister turn, ‘Call Me Little Sunshine’ could be a blood relative to ‘Cirice’ as the Devil speaks to children through their computers, while ‘Hunter’s Moon’ (used recently for horror sequel Halloween Kills) is a paean to classic horror consistent with the record’s overarching theme – in this case the empire of childhood. ‘Watcher in the Sky’ quickly brightens the proceedings again, sweeping determinedly forwards with weighty riffs and another memorably ebullient chorus.
Like something composer Wendy Carlos could have written for The Shining or A Clockwork Orange, the darkly majestic segue of ‘Dominion’ takes us away from the industrial imagery of Zbigniew Bielak‘s magnificent cover art and into the outside world before the band deliver arguably their most bonkers and potentially divisive cut to date. After a bombastic orchestral opening, the brazenly irreverent stomp of ‘Twenties’ finds Forge sneering and rasping his way through something possibly best described as Satanic Reggaeton. There’s simply no other way to get away with lines like, “we’ll be grabbing them all by the hoo-ha” than with a wink and a cheeky smile.
Striking a more serious and contemplative tone, ‘Darkness At the Heart of My Love’ is about people who fake piety in order to further themselves while ‘Griftwood’ continues that theme using a Van Halen style riff, a glorious ’80s bounce similar to Prequelle‘s ‘Dance Macabre’, and former US Vice President Mike Pence as inspiration. After the brief segue of ‘Bite of Passage’ the album climaxes with the Victorian gothic of ‘Respite on the Spitalfields’. Based on the story of infamous murderer Jack the Ripper, the laid back but mischievous closer leans on everything from Alice Cooper and Nightwish to a string section reminiscent of ‘Still of the Night’ by Whitesnake and stands as arguably the most accomplished finale the band have recorded to date.
Ignoring pleas for more of Prequelle‘s unexpected saxophone, Forge resists the temptation to repeat himself this time, choosing to explore other avenues of playful extravagance instead. Guest musicians, pianist Martin Hederos, drummer Ricard ‘Hux’ Nettermalm and guitarist Fredrik Åkesson of Opeth help balance the warped Abba style melodies against classic rock influences such as Queen, Pink Floyd and Rush. Certain cuts might require a few spins but never take long to work their magic, and previously released songs are improved simply by being placed into their proper context.
For those who prefer their Satanic messages to be roared, croaked and shrieked across a howling void against a backdrop of buzzing guitars and relentless blastbeats, once again, Ghost most definitely remains None Of Your Business. Not that this warning will deter the internet, of course, where just a single mention of the band’s name is usually more than enough to trigger an immediate Pavlovian response from hordes of opinionated gatekeepers salivating furiously over their Caps Lock buttons. But the mere fact that Ghost keeps coming back, bigger and stronger each time simply proves one thing: the angrier the haters, the wider Papa’s grin.
Flirtatiously progressive but comfortingly familiar, Impera slithers between creeping cynicism, leering malevolence and joyful exultation. Often surprising but never disappointing, Ghost’s new empire has risen.
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9 / 10