Review Summary: Oscillating between '70s and '80s AOR and pop-progressive flair, Ghost continue to carve their genre-bending niche with their strongest album to date.
Ghost's occult ethos is akin to the spectacle of World Wrestling Entertainment. There are several parallels: the carnival-like grandeur, the over-the-top gimmicks cranked to eleven, the suspension of disbelief for the sake of storytelling, and the exuberant extravagance all coalesce into an enthralling theatrical performance. Although I don't want to fixate on the aesthetics as much - as some publications have been wont to do with Ghost - it's nevertheless important to provide some context into Meliora
, the band's third offering. Thematically, Meliora
("Better", in the sense that 'Semper ad meliora' roughly translates to "Always toward better things", an oft-used motto for universities; alternatively, it's the root for "ameliorate", which is to make something better) follows a logical progression from the Swedish outfit's first two records. Whereas debut Opus Eponymous
' motif centered around an impending doom - the birth of the Antichrist - Infestissumam
's focus was the Antichrist's presence - or what mankind perceived to be the Devil - on Earth. However, Meliora
deals less with mankind's relationship with the Devil; rather, the band spotlight how humanity tries to reconcile or resign itself with the absence of a loving, benevolent god. Leading up to Meliora
's release, the only announced personnel change was that Infestissumam
's vocalist, Papa Emeritus II, was replaced by his younger brother, Papa Emeritus III. Papa III is three months younger than Papa II (but just so happens to have the same build and timbre as the other two Papas), the cloaked-and-masked Nameless Ghouls continue to be shrouded in mystery, and for people who are annoyed by such perceived folly: perhaps Ghost (and having fun with one's art) are not for you. Get too
caught up in the details and your listening experience suffers - see my aforementioned note about suspension of disbelief - because Meliora
is a fantastic, bewitching record.
's biggest strength is that all of Ghost's convoluted and Byzantine backstory harmonizes with the band's effusive, monumental sounds on the record. Right from the jump with opener "Spirit", Ghost sonically aim for a dystopic, urban environs, as if the band and their accompanying choir are performing in an abandoned skyscraper several floors above their congregation in a dilapidated city. The Swedish outfit are frequently compared to Alice Cooper, GWAR, and KISS visually, but the three oft-mentioned correlates musically are Blue Öyster Cult, Cathedral, and Deep Purple. There are certainly obvious allusions to all three -- "Spirit", "Majesty", and "Deus in Absentia" are standouts in this regard -- but Meliora
is further bolstered by the copious amount of riffs found on this record, something that was relatively absent on Infestissumam
. For example, the opening bass rumble in "From the Pinnacle to the Pit" harkens back to Opus Eponymous
' "Con Clavi Con Dio" but with far more snarl, "Spirit", album highlight "Cirice", and the caustic "Mummy Dust" have indelible Moog "riffs" and featurettes, and "Absolution" is a quintessential album-oriented rock single that could have easily found radio play in the '70s and '80s when the style was reaching its zenith, and especially if Boston, Journey, or Foreigner sounded more nefarious.
In fact, it's this AOR-like format where Ghost seem to excel most despite the shadowy, doom-and-gloom backdrop. "Absolution" is the exemplary archetype, as if King Diamond were given Kansas' keyboardist and REO Speedwagon's songwriting blueprints, and the theatrical "Majesty" is an acceptable runner-up with its Deep Purple-like mindset, but it's the wondrous "He Is", which follows the gentle, harp-driven "Spöksonat" - the gentler of the album's two transitional interludes - that also showcases Ghost's keen attention to integrating doom-infused, progressive elements with glistening, pop-oriented sensibilities. "He Is" brings to mind ABBA melded with Genesis, and its bridge is reminiscent of The Carpenters-meets-Styx. Meliora
is chock-full of these bright-versus-dark juxtapositions, and as the album's soaring ballad, "He Is" is brilliantly placed in the tracklisting before the sinister "Mummy Dust", one of Ghost's heaviest psalms to date. The album's master stroke, though, is far and away "Cirice", with punishing guitars and thunderous tympani in the verses giving way to enchanting refrains and the album's best bridge-to-outro chorus transition.
is impeccable - the rhythm section is emphatic in its punch but never reaches the point of excess, and the drums and bass give the songs a firm foundation for the guitars, keys, and vocals to shine. To that end, I'm incredibly impressed with how prevalent and imaginative the keyboards and synthesizers are on the record, especially on "Cirice", "Deus in Absentia", and "Absolution". The harmonized guitars, especially those on "Absolution" and "He Is", are marvelous; in addition, the heavy palm-muted verses that segue into roaring choruses, as heard in "Spirit" and "Mummy Dust" are especially splendid. As is the case with the band's discography, though, the Nameless Ghouls are secondary to whatever Papa Emeritus is at the helm, and Meliora
's Papa Emeritus III is no exception. His towering vocals in "Cirice", "Absolution", and "Deus in Absentia" are artisan-like when heard alongside the Nameless Ghouls' instrumentation, and his ethereal vocals in "He Is" are a delightful complement to his gravelly sneer in "Mummy Dust". Lyrically, the connections Papa draws throughout Meliora
to organized religion - and the emotions felt while in service - will only augment the live performances when Ghost go out on tour to support the record.
Even if you scoff at the showmanship, props, or labyrinthine construction that is Ghost, Meliora
is more than just an old-fashioned throwback to '70s and '80s album-oriented rock. The record's dystopic/futuristic atmosphere, the gigantic choruses, and spellbinding vocals from Papa Emeritus III all make for a persistently-engaging listen, even if the Devil worship that characterized their first two albums has fallen by the wayside in favor of exploring mankind's reactions of an absent higher power. Meliora
's biggest detractors will likely be those who derided the If You Have Ghost
EP, but that served as a harbinger of things to come. The intentionality behind Meliora
's accessibility -- namely with the progressive-pop-doom hybrid that Ghost have crafted on Meliora
, with the occult aesthetic running in parallel to the music -- is a resounding victory for the Swedish sextet and is assuredly the band's strongest album to date.