Back in the spring of 2013 I started to listen to an album called Infestissumam, by a new-to-me Swedish heavy metal band called Ghost.
I loved their theatrics, and the stories they told, and I fell in love with a track called Year Zero. The songs opens with this dark chanting – “Belial, Behemoth, Beelzebub, Asmodeus, Satanas, Lucifer/Belial, Behemoth, Beelzebub, Asmodeus, Satanas, Lucifer”, I was hooked. Their overall sound seemed to echo classic Iron Maiden to me, but the drums and guitar solos had this Metallica’esque influx.
Looking around for show dates of my new found love affair, I noticed they had just been through Vancouver, playing at the Commodore Ballroom. I was angry that I hadn’t discovered them a few weeks earlier.
Since then I have been waiting patiently for them to return, and on Thursday night they finally made their comeback to our fair city bringing their Popestar Tour through town.
The band had blossomed since 2013. They had won numerous awards over the past three years, including Best Metal Performance at the 2016 Grammy’s, and they had a new album in 2015’s Meliora. I was excited, and had this date circled on my calendar weeks in advance.
On this particularly extra rainy Thursday night, I ran from my vehicle to the venue as to not get my camera gear drenched.
Walking into the venue I immediately noticed the queue for the merchandise booth. One thing maniacal metal fans are known for is their well rounded collections of black band shirts. I chose to skip the line and head immediately towards the stage.
I was lucky enough to also be photographing this show, so I stood outside the entrance to the front media pit area and waited.
A couple silhouettes appeared on stage, and slowly the house lights dimmed. The venue previously loud with the voices of anticipation and camaraderie fell silent. The back of the stage gently illuminated with a series of deep blue lights. Marissa Nadler and her accompanying guitarist stood before the crowd, and after a very quick hello delved into their opening set.
I was not familiar with her work, so I paid close attention.
Her sound was part folk and part haunting darkness, she has the wonderful ability to feel completely gentle but her voice has this seemingly effortless power to it. Each song was entrancing, and felt vulnerable. I was captivated by her tones and vocal prowess, as well as the guitar work of her accompanying musician. I looked online trying to establish who the gentleman she had on stage with her was, but to no avail. He added these perfectly matched bluesy tones with his guitar that really fit so well with the emotions from Nadler’s vocals.
The whole visual arrangement was simple, but it allowed the audience to focus on the music. Everything was painted with a light touch.
I had walked in with no knowledge of Marissa Nadler, but I walked away intrigued and wanting to hear more.
In between sets I strolled around a bit, but then quickly returned to the side of the media pit to await my chance to photograph the headliner.
Minutes prior to their arrival, a small number of photographers were lead in towards the front of the stage. We each jockeyed for position, and then sat back and waited.
The theatrics started well before the band took the stage. Incense was lit at the front sides of the stage, the house music disappeared and the sounds of Miserere Mei, Deus filled the venue. A couple well dressed men came out and began ritualistically removing a large black satin sheet that had been laid across the drum kit and keyboard. Billowing smoke rolled out across the stage.
The lights began to dim, and a few figures crept on the platform before us and took their positions.
Suddenly the back of the stage exploded with bright light, and the first notes of Square Hammer rang through the house. I tried desperately to captured some moments in my camera, but I also tried to take in every second into my memory.
The pulsing, deliberate delivery of each note rang through my ears. At this moment only the Nameless Ghouls stood before us, but then from the background a new figure appeared, it was Papa Emeritus III. In dramatic fashion he first stood there in this dark pocket behind the row of guitar carrying Ghouls. His vocals filtered in and the venue began screaming them in unison.
Hearing them live, I was impressed with how tight they played together, but the same time how interactive they all were with the crowd. The lyrics of that first song, “Are you on the square?/Are you on the level?/Are you ready to swear right here right now?/Before the devil”, echoed from the speakers but seemed to be even louder from the droves of fans behind me.
As the show rolled on, I kept finding myself in awe of their stage show. The visuals were fantastic. I found my eyes were darting around the stage at times, as so much was going. It wasn’t just your typical case of a lead singer being the focal point. Each of the Nameless Ghouls had powerful personalities, and took every opportunity to play up their part for their fans.
Through the beginning of the show Papa was in a dark satin robe accompanied by his demonically perfect papal hat, but about midway through he left the stage and returned without these two pieces. Sitting out in the mass of music fans, feeling the heat from everything that was going on, I couldn’t imagine he had been cool and terribly comfortable in all that costume. This allowed him to be more mobile as well, which he took advantage of, and started walking on the stage risers and traveling around the stage with more sporadic movements.
Aside from the well orchestrated stage setup, and the tight musicianship, I was also quite impressed with his monologues and crowd interactions. He was funny and charming and completely intriguing. The music also sparked a constant mosh pit in the center of the audience. I mean this isn’t uncommon for metal shows, but I didn’t think that the music was fast enough to stir up the fans like that.
Near the end of the show, but before the encore, the lights went out and a couple of confetti canons were fired off. The pulsing light of strobes from the stage lit the falling, shimmering metallic confetti as it fell onto the venue floor. What couldn’t really be seen though, was that those blasts also contained 666 dollar bills. Custom made Ghost dollars for all of your satanic purchases. I was not close enough to get any, but I planned at that moment to storm the floor once the house lights came on.
As we were lead into the finale, Papa Emeritus started talking about sexuality, and the female orgasm. He said that we should “celebrate the female orgasm, in the name of Satan”. Those in attendance cheered in agreement, and a good portion of female voice kept cheering to agree just a little more.
He also talked about how they end every show with the same song. He said some people find this a little predictable, but closing out with the same song is a ritual, and well that really fits with their persona.
Monstrance Clock was the final song.
I sang along as best I could, but I kept getting lost in thought about the show.
It was really well executed. It felt like this 1,300 person capacity theater was too small for them. They were busting it at the seems.
Ghost set list
From the Pinnacle to the Pit
Stand by Him
Con Clavi Con Dio
Per Aspera ad Inferi
Body and Blood
The band thanked every one for coming, spent a few moments tossing their remaining guitar picks and drumsticks out to the masses, and then departed the stage.
I was elated. This show could have very easily been a let down, as I had been building it up in my mind for three years, but it wasn’t. It was actually even better then I could have imagined.
As the patrons of the venue started to spill out on to the street, I stayed behind and started scouring the ground for left over Ghost dollars. I couldn’t find any whole one, just pieces and remnants.
An old school mate spotted me and gave me one he had found, I was quite grateful for that.
This didn’t stop me from my archaeological adventure, as I wiped piles and piles of metallic foil confetti aside on the floor I spotted a guitar pick, which I quickly pocketed. The few of us that remained near the front fence, talked about the show and how much was loved it. We were all in awe of the whole spectacle.
As we chatted I looked down on the floor over the fence into the media pit and spotted a small pile of those bills. One of the roadies walked by and I politely asked if I could have them, and wouldn’t you know it, he happily passed them to me.
That was the perfect ending to a much anticipated night.
I walked back out into the rainy night with a smile on my face.
Let’s hope the band comes back really soon. Pretty please!