A few weeks ago, my phone buzzed. It was a message from DGM Towers asking whether I would like to shoot Ghost in Cardiff, as someone who had previously bagged the gig had taken some time out. Following one of the easiest decisions I have ever had to make, I nipped up the motorway to Cardiff for the second European leg of the Popestar tour. An evening with Papa Emeritus III and the Nameless Ghouls is unlike any other experience I have ever witnessed on a stage. This was my first “night-time” experience of Ghost (the others being at festivals in the daylight), and the only other time I have been quite so blown away was my first introduction to live Rammstein.
As has been the case on many previous Ghost occasions, the support show was an odd choice. Zombi, from Pittsburgh are a synthwave duo featuring Steve Moore on bass and keyboards and Anthony Paterra on drums. Due to the stage set up for Ghost, they were restricted to a small stage area, and whilst the music was creative and the drumming powerful and intricate, a lack of interaction with the crowd and no sign of a setlist, lyrics, or song intros meant I had no idea whatsoever as to what they played! The crowd were also a little bemused, reacting with polite applause at the front and long bar queues to fill the gap before the headliners.
After a 45 minute support set, the clean up was one of the fastest I have ever seen, and Ghost’s stage set was revealed, all ready to go. The lights went down and the intro music started up with some gentle piano. Road crew placed incense sticks on the light stands to the side of the stage and the sweet smell filled the auditorium, wisps of smoke curling across the crowd. Uniquely, this set the scene for the next twenty minutes. Soft, choral music and a crowd getting more and more excited until finally, “Earth” and “Wind” took their places behind the drums and keyboards at the back of the otherwise empty stage, bringing a huge cheer from the animated fans. “Fire” stood astride a guitar podium and launched into the intro to “Square Hammer” and as “Ether” and “Water” kicked into the body of the song, Papa Emeritus III appeared. As an opener this was perfect. Papa, complete with mitre and robes had the crowd in the palm of his hand from the first note, and was a compelling sight with his make up and demonic eyes. “From the Pinnacle to the Pit” followed swiftly, the huge fuzzy bass riff intro leading into a darker vocal and showcasing the band’s ability to deliver uniquely melodic black metal.
The almost fairground keyboard intro to “Secular Haze” took the sound in yet another direction before another powerful bass line took us into “Con Clavi Con Dio” and it’s early Black Sabbath like riffs. “Per Aspera Ad Inferi” slowed things down to a more theatrical level, with Papa leading the crowd in a Latin sing-along. Surely a first at any gig I have ever attended. A pair of nuns were introduced and sent out into the crowd for “Body and Blood”. Unfortunately, whilst the visuals and the sound mix for the band were superb, the acoustics in the hall where I was, meant that when Papa talked to the crowd his voice was muffled, so I couldn’t make out much of the banter. A church organ introduced “Devil Church”, and some deliciously layered twin guitar playing took us into the equally delicious darkness of “Cirice”. The masks and matching costumes, along with the jealously protected anonymity, perhaps obscure just how good the musicians on stage are. Behind the initial impression of face paint and mitre, Papa Emeritus III is a wonderful showman, waltzing around the stage and encouraging the crowd to sing or clap along or appreciate the musical skill of those on stage. The demonic chants that introduced “Year Zero” were spine-chilling, and followed by “Spöksonat” played over the PA before the band launched into the stunning guitar intro of “He Is” bringing a huge cheer and the entire crowd clapping and singing along. If a song demonstrates the potential of Ghost to be absolutely massive it’s this one. Ridiculously tuneful and catchy, it crosses boundaries. If you were to listen the song without seeing the band at all, their appearance would come as a complete surprise. We switched back to Dark Metal with a delicious version of “Absolution” and rock into “Mummy Dust”. “Ghuleh/Zombie Queen” was introduced by some crystal clear keyboard, followed by extremely dark vocals, before the set was closed by “Ritual”. There was no way that the crowd were letting Ghost leave without an encore, and they duly returned for “Monstrance Clock”, with it’s deliciously creepy vocals and Hammer Horror riffs.
What surprised me about Ghost was that they confounded my initial thought that they would prove to be all about the stageshow and less about the music. The stage was almost bare. There was no pyro to speak of (a confetti cannon somewhat at odds with the darkness of their catalogue) and a bare set with few frills. Instead the Nameless Ghouls and Papa Emeritus III showed why there is such a buzz about them at the moment. They have the potential to be festival headliners (many of the shows are sold out on the tour and a step up to larger venues seems inevitable), and the songs would easily take the much bigger staging and production that would need. The only obstacle will appear to be the “Religious Right” in the U.S, who, as you can imagine, are not exactly the band biggest fans. Devil Worship and Satanic Latin incantations gaining the band something of a reputation across the pond. However, if they carry on gaining momentum as they are, it can only be a matter of time before they achieve the greatness they are destined for.
Review and images: Rob Wilkins