Ghost – IMPERA Review

Ghost is a divisive band. Forget red states and blue states; don’t bother with Yankees or Red Sox; and I don’t want to hear whose side you take in the Montreal Screwjob debacle. There’s only one true rivalry, and the debate only grows more contentious with each new Papa. Indeed, the rift between Ghost adherents and their vehement detractors is a vast, otherworldly chasm, overflowing with hate-kindled magma and plumes of blackened self-righteousness. All that being said, I really like ’em. The spawn of an unholy tryst between Black Sabbath, ABBA and Blue Öyster Cult (with Mercyful Fate looking on in abject horror), I’ve been on the Ghost-train since their pop-Satanist debut Opus Eponymous in 2010. Enter IMPERA, their fifth album and the latest in an eclectic, sacrilegious and undeniably fun catalog. Let’s get spooky, y’all.

Full disclosure: I like what Ghost (and by extension masked front man and puppet master Tobias Forge) do, up to and including IMPERA. Since their debut, the band have staked a claim in the occult rock realm, even when thicker riffs, eerie atmospheres, and heavier sections served as knowing nods to metal. The poppy melodies, hooky choruses and theatricality have been present since day one, although the more doomy elements on Opus Eponymous have largely been replaced on subsequent recordings, resulting in an IMPERA with even more lush ballads and menacing pop tunes. Indeed, IMPERA is probably their most theatrical album to date, which is saying a lot for a band whose wardrobe changes with each record. But make no mistake: Ghost is still Ghost, and if that’s your thing, you’ll appreciate this review and the subsequent score. If it’s not, read anyway and just leave me nasty comment below.

Consider your gears kicked with “Imperium,” a simple, opening instrumental featuring plaintive plucking, martial drumming and a fist-pumping riff that perfectly builds anticipation for what’s to come: eleven tracks of joyous, occult rock goodness, replete with rousing hooks, plenty of bombast, and a tone that shifts from celebratory to accusatory to maudlin; moods that evoke naive triumph, sinister suspicion, and cynical defeat. Maintaining this evolution across IMPERA’s runtime doesn’t take away from just how accessible these songs are. Ghost have mastered the ability to compose hymns of satanic praise while still finding mainstream success, just by keeping the tunes straightforward, the choruses memorable, and planting their (forked) tongues firmly in their cheeks. That weird and wonderful middle-ground they straddle makes IMPERA a fun and blasphemous listen. You can’t go wrong with the victorious “Kaisarion” or the 80s-tinged “Spillways,” just like you can’t ignore the Opus Eponymous-throwback “Call Me Little Sunshine” or the wicked earworm that is “Hunter’s Moon.” Perhaps the emotional peak of the album is “Twenties,” a song whose lyric video elicited plenty of groans from the AMG staff. Within the larger context of the album, however, its inclusion makes more sense. Coupled with dramatic orchestration, a creepy children’s chorus refrain, and a tone evoking both the excitement of prosperity and the simultaneous fear of losing it, and it’s hard not to fall for this ostentatious number.

My only significant gripe with IMPERA are the last few tracks, which tend to fall into the ballad category and slows some of the momentum that propels this 46 minute album. Their inclusion makes sense thematically, and the combined efforts of “Darkness At The Heart Of My Love,” “Griftwood” and “Respite On The Spitalfields” paint a vivid picture of that closing chapter of every empire in decline: the damaging death rattle. Even though these songs align in both tone and placement, they didn’t stick with me as much as the earlier tracks. That being said, even these are minor quibbles that pale in comparison to the impact of the album as a unified whole.

Much of the criticism I see leveled at Ghost boils down to a simple statement: “they aren’t metal.” And my enduring response has always been: “who cares?” That isn’t to say this band or any band is immune to criticism; I wouldn’t be writing album reviews if I believed that. But criticism isn’t just about noting flaws; it also includes pointing out honest successes where you see them. And metal or not, IMPERA is a success. It’s not a perfect album, nor will it resonate with everyone, but an accessible, engaging occult rock record that explores the cyclical nature of empires by way of both hooks and heft is a record worth my time. Hopefully you’ll give it some of yours.

Rating: 3.5/5.0
DR: | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Loma Vista Recordings
Websites: |
Releases Worldwide: March 11th, 2022

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