It may have taken more than a decade of refining their sound and image, not to mention the relentless touring of America. But in the wake of 2018’s breakthrough album Prequelle, Ghost are finally the top-tier mainstream heavy metal/hard rock act that many expected. Over three albums, singer/songwriter/visionary Tobias Forge has surrounded himself with a cadre of Swedish production and songwriting talent – namely pop producer Klas Åhlund and songwriting team Vargas and Lagola – to create a clever hybrid of metal, rock, and pop that plays well to mainstream audiences while winking to those in the metal scene who first gravitated to the band’s deliciously sacrilegious style on 2010’s groundbreaking debut Opus Eponymus. Ghost’s brilliantly conceived combination of theatricality, artwork, accessibility, blasphemy, merchandising, and social media – their Instagram account is splendid – has made the band a marketing exec’s dream, and a decade after signing a lucrative deal with Universal offshoot Loma Vista, it’s starting to pay off in a huge way.
Long-delayed due to the pandemic, fifth album Impera strives to maintain the momentum that the hook-laden 2015 album Meliora started. Indeed, it feels like a companion piece to Meliora and Prequelle in both tone and musical direction. It sounds big, its memorable riffs plumb the depths of 1970s and 1980s metal and hard rock while sounding distinctly modern, and best of all, the vocal hooks are everywhere. One needn’t look further than the two singles that preceded the album’s release, which both follow right where “Rats” and “Dance Macabre” left off. “Hunter’s Moon” juxtaposes 1970s horror movie menace and dread with ’80s gothic rock and heavy metal dynamics to create a quirky yet danceable track that veers from tinkly synths to Black Sabbathesque string bends with ease. “Call Me Little Sunshine” revisits the doomy dread of 2015’s “Cirice”, built around a classy, spiraling seven-note riff, the simplicity of which would make Tony Iommi proud.
Dig deeper into Impera, however, and you’ll come across even better moments of inspiration. Opening anthem “Kaisarion” explodes out of the gate in an upbeat style, an ebullient burst of palm-muted guitars and twin harmonies that immediately evoke comparisons to German power metallers, Gamma Ray. Adding more fun to the track’s nihilistically gleeful celebration of the fall of empires past and present is a breakdown that leaps headfirst into Yes territory from out of nowhere. To pull off such a stunt – going from Kai Hansen to Chris Squire in a heartbeat – and keep the track cohesive is a testament to Forge’s songwriting smarts, not to mention his band’s versatility.
If there’s one song that comes closest to equaling the rock/pop perfection of “Dance Macabre”, it’s “Spillways”. Kicking off with a piano riff straight out of Blue Öyster Cult’s “Sinful Love”, the song launches into a propulsive groove as Forge, the slight rasp in his voice adding character, muses about how humanity can’t enjoy the light fully without the threat of darkness. “Your desolation led you into this vile incarnation of consummated bliss / I know you need it now to make you feel alive.” It’s what Alice Cooper pulled off so well on Welcome to My Nightmare, possessing an explosive chorus that practically begs to be a single release.
“Watcher in the Sky” feels straight out of Ozzy Osbourne‘s The Ultimate Sin, led by its monumental staccato riff that pays deliberate homage to 1980s guitar legend Jake E. Lee. Lyrically, Forge wastes no time lacerating modern society’s susceptibility to conspiracy theories, calling out flat-earthers and QAnon devotees as the dupes they are while at the same time transforming such biting satire into a fist-pumping anthem. Meanwhile, “Darkness at the Heart of My Love” is a Grand Guignol power ballad reminiscent of Alice Cooper’s glitzy late 1970s work (right down to the harpsichord and finger-snaps – building to a wonderfully grandiose climax. “Griftwood” hints at deep melancholy underneath the upbeat hooks, depicting the constant threat of con men and charlatans, be they political or religious, while “Respite on the Spital Fields” shifts from chiming, Disintegration-inspired guitars to a splendid chorus that explodes with another gigantic riff.
The biggest challenge on Impera is deciding whether or not “Twenties” is worthy of inclusion. Bolstered by bellowing brass instrumentation and tympani, the song’s deliberately martial pace attempts to create a menacing backdrop to Forge’s fascist narrator. Atop crunching, Hetfieldian guitars Forge compares the tumultuous period of 1920s Germany to 2020s America. The similarities of both countries’ precipitous fall towards authoritarianism and the death of democracy is so frighteningly similar that the song becomes devilishly ambiguous. Is he singing about National Socialism, Trumpism, or both? That said, Forge’s word choice might be a little too blunt for its own good, as “moolah”, “hoo-hah”, and “Da Rulah” bring the song uncomfortably close to a cartoon level. The idea of “Twenties” is inspired, but as far as execution goes, such a track might have worked better in the more capable hands of provocateurs Rammstein than Ghost.
Although “Twenties” is a bit of gristle on an otherwise meaty album, the rest of Impera is so strong that a three-minute (slight) dip in quality is a lot easier to digest. Once again, Tobias Forge has come through with a slick, wickedly catchy collection of songs that are certain to please Ghost’s rapidly growing audience. His knack for smart riffs and melodies, not to mention his constant itch for experimentation, have rightly made Ghost a leader in mainstream rock, a positive development the genre has sorely lacked for years.