Words by Matt New
Photos by Angie New
Mid-week gigs in Sydney are a challenge at the best of times. Throw in daylight savings, a long weekend, and the NRL grand final, you would not expect many to make the effort. But when the band is Ghost; it is totally worth the sacrifice. Thousands of diehard fans in facepaint and costumes made the pilgrimage to Qudos Bank Arena to see this cult-like phenomenon that has built up over the past decade.
Opening for Ghost on this 2023 Australian tour were Southeast Desert Metal from Alice Springs. This amazing metal quartet, who have recently been signed to Destroy All Lines, were incredibly fun to watch. Drawing upon their indigenous culture and roots, their music had the gritty edge of thrash and the powerful riffs of doom metal fused into one massive ball of fiery energy. You definitely can hear the influences of bands like Slayer, Black Sabbath, Metallica, and at times; the galloping rhythms likened to Iron Maiden within their powerful sound.
For a band that labels themselves as “the most isolated metal band in Australia”, their aura conjured an instant connection inside, and it did not even cross my mind that I was watching a band from the centre of the country. Opening with tracks Desert Metal, Eagle and Rainmaker, they demonstrated a high level of technical proficiency which kept me engaged throughout their entire set. Announcing to the crowd that they have a new album being released on the horizon, we were treated to several new tracks including Giant and Boogeyman. On top of an incredibly tight musical performance, they added layers of a dreadlocked dancer that moved in a very tribal manner to the brutality of this sound. A highly enjoyable set, and a band I hope gets a lot more opportunity to spread their wings across the nation, as this is a band you need to experience.
Ghost’s last visit to Australia was back in 2017 for the Download Festival, in which they headlined and really asserted themselves as a serious rock juggernaut. Having witnessed them headline this show, I knew that whatever they had planned for this current tour was going to be an incredible experience.
Originally scheduled for the Hordern Pavillion, the Sydney show was moved to Qudos Bank Arena, and rightfully so after seeing the highly elaborate and impressively large stage backdrop, which resembled the interior of a gothic cathedral. As we waited for Ghost to hit the stage, some carefully selected pieces of music were played in the background to keep us entertained. These included the strangely obscure Klara Stjärnor by Swedish Jazz pianist Jan Johansson and the eerily haunting Gregorio Allegri Miserere mei, Deus, which translates from Latin to ‘have mercy on me, O God’. An apt choice for the upcoming religious music experience that awaited.
Finally, as the lights went down, a spotlight hit the large curtain that shrouded the stage, and silhouettes of nameless ghouls were suddenly illuminated to the dueling lead guitar passages of Kaisarion. Then bang!! The curtain drops and the pyrotechnics on stage explode to the surprise of the thousands of screaming fans, echoing like thunder throughout Qudos. Then as Papa Emeritus IV (aka Tobias Forge) ran out the front of the stage triumphantly with mic in hand, the crowd was sent into hysteria, swarming towards the band with the energy of a tidal wave. The amazing level of talent and energy amongst the nameless ghouls provided a dynamic soundtrack for Papa’s soothing, yet eerie vocals. Rats, From the Pinnacle to the Pit and Spillways followed, giving a variety of material from the past decade for us all to sing along to. Papa took a moment to pause for the first time in the evening to remind everyone that this is the band’s “first magic night”, of a spectacle they have long been waiting to share with Australian audiences outside of the festival arenas.
Ghost’s music fuses the heavy elements of heavy metal, hard rock, and doom metal; but then sprinkles a deliberate euro-pop flavour likened to acts like ABBA. Divisive to most metal fans, this bold sound that transcends traditional heavy fundamentals is a deliberate ploy to poke fun at the establishment. This tongue-in-cheek attitude is also very evident within their live performances as Papa and the Nameless Ghouls selectively choose when to be completely in the zone of deep concentration, or having some fun on stage. In one instance hilariously, lead guitarist Fire seemed possessed by his guitar solo in Ritual that ended up running off on his own tangent, only to be told to stop by bassist Water, gesticulating his disapproval for the unplanned improvisation.
Papa Emeritus IV made several costume changes throughout the evening, channelling the characters of the previous Papas that preceded him. The elaborate costumes ranged from the complete robes and hats of the previous satanic popes, to the sequin jackets of Cardinal Copia.
The visual element of these costumes really highlights the evolution and the story that feeds this pantomime that has been created. A pure stroke of genius that goes far beyond the music itself. The set had a vast array of tracks which spanned the entire discography, including Con Clavi Con Dio from the band’s first album Opus Eponymous, through to Call Me Little Sunshine off 2022’s Impera. Balanced perfectly by the precision of the eight-piece band of Nameless Ghouls that are such amazing musicians and Papa’s beautifully dulcet vocal melodies. He Is provided the most intimate moment of the night as the entire crowd sang the rock hymn in unison whilst hundreds of mobile phone lights swayed calmly illuminating the entire venue. The instrumental masterpiece Miasma gave all the Nameless Ghouls an opportunity to have their moment front and centre, and allowed Papa Nihal to be reawakened from his crypt to rip out one seriously awesome sax solo. Papa Emeritus IV added some cheeky innuendo about Papa Nihal’s journey as a singer to the saxophone. I think you can see where this is going, but we won’t repeat it.
Mummy Dust was one of the standout performances for the evening as it portrayed a much darker side to the band which is often forgotten about sometimes with the cheesy pop singles. This particular song has so many powerful and broad sounds that are contrasted by some delicately dissonant keyboard melodies. Throw in a mix of pyrotechnics and an explosion of glitter into the crowd, this was by far the most awesome moment of the night. The band reappeared after a short time for a three-song encore that included Square Hammer and Dance Macabre. An encore that almost didn’t happen as Papa teased the audience to whether his many bandmates would return, but as expected they would not disappoint.
The show had an incredibly detailed production both visually and musically, and it had all the senses tingling. Ghost delivered one of the most refined live performances I have seen in a very long time, and for the people who are yet to appreciate them, they may need to experience them for themselves.