Review Summary: After riding the tidal wave As the World Bleeds, Theocracy's Ghost Ship can finally sail through clear waters.
Theocracy has taken the long, laborious route to fame within the metal community.
Debuting with a solo project that singer Matt Smith has affectionately labeled a "demo" for his artistic inspiration, Theocracy was not even a complete band for its first masterpiece, Mirror of Souls. The 5-piece band finally consummated on As the World Bleeds, an album I described in my 2012 review as "defining Christian metal." I still stand by my obtuse statement that the 11-minute "I Am" is "the most epic Christian song ever written."
It seemed after such a defining crest in their career that Theocracy had an inevitable trough ahead. Given the 5 years, a scrapped concept album, and issues with keeping a drummer on board, Matt and the boys must have had a similar fear. In reality, Ghost Ship is an album that excels in Theocracy’s strengths and showcases Theocracy at its most concise.
"Paper Tiger" is a fitting opener, recalling heavy metal legends Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. Razor-sharp riffs with everything we've come to expect from the best: demanding Eastern-tinged verses recalling Powerslave, a soaring chorus that never gets old, and even a "heavy-metal rap" (think "Holy Wars" or "Freewheel Burning") that gives it a distinctive edge above your average power metal. The lyrics are quite unusual for Theocracy, taking a political/social commentary stance. "On we go, with our drama flags unfurled/While they die in chains around the world, and we dance on anyway." Basically, third-world reality > first-world problems. As incendiary as that might be as we each counter with our political pet-peeves, it's hard to deny Matt has a point. There’s also no denying that Ghost Ship, as with all Theocracy albums, will make you think.
The universal nature of the themes may surprise those expecting a campy Christian album. The most obvious note on the lyrics is the prominent use of analogies. Songs like "Wishing Well" and "Currency in a Bankrupt World" tastefully put a metaphorical spin on important topics such as "actions speak louder than words" and "not finding your worth in your success." Only the final epic "Easter" is topical, applying Matt's storytelling skills perfected on “Mirror of Souls” to the resurrection story. Matt Smith is a world-class songwriter, and he continues to stretch his abilities on Ghost Ship.
Musically, Theocracy is concise and catchy as ever. The title track "Ghost Ship" has a chorus that is both epic and exhilarating like all power metal bands attempt but few achieve. Granted, "Call to Arms" has a chorus clearly stepping over the line into cringy power metal cheese ("it's time to sound the fight song" just...no), but one can afford to skip one filler track. Matt has a way of making melodies that are both hummable and interesting, filled with nuance and bombastic leaps reaching that piercing high note we all love.
Besides the epic "Easter," Ghost Ship is not as progressive as past Theocracy albums. Yet, it still excels at interesting chords and harmonies, gnarly riffs, and unbelievable guitar solos (courtesy of Van Allen Wood). All is still accomplished with shorter length and with fewer movements. I can’t help but feel this is exactly what Theocracy needed. While I was tempted to pull out my pitchfork and yell "SELL-OUTS!" at the start of "Around the World and Back," it is a moving pop-metal song that proves Theocracy could still make great songs stripped of pomp and flash. Ghost Ship has loads of heavy riffs often reaching thrash intensity on "The Wonder of It All" and the clear mosh-pleaser "Stir the Embers." This is Theocracy at its heaviest since "Laying the Demon to Rest," and this should also lay the doubters to rest.
Though a critic like myself may point to Theocracy's past 2008 and 2011 masterpieces as the band's creative peak, Ghost Ship is full of the energy and confidence of a band who has proven the world its identity and rushes ahead to claim its prize. I suspect Ghost Ship will succeed in both appeasing its core fanbase and attracting those who were on the fence with Theocracy.
"Pay the Piper, here we go…this Ghost Ship sets off to shake the world!"