There isn’t enough mystery left in music. The internet handily killed it for the most part, and while the 21st century fan takes relish in discovering their favourite bands’ Netflix preferences on Twitter and absorbing daily photos of their pets when they’re not on the road, it’s a process that’s helped to destroy some of the aura surrounding the travelling musician. It’s hard to imagine the secret identities of Slipknot’s members remaining secret had their explosion into public consciousness come ten years later than it did – having said that, Ghost have done pretty well thus far. While Tobias Forge is almost certainly involved, the identities of the group’s Nameless Ghouls (among whose ranks Dave Grohl might once have briefly appeared) and even their successively numbered yet clearly identikit Papa Emeritus front-’men’ having remained shrouded in secret.
It’s equally impressive that the band’s music has achieved (almost) equal recognition to their distinctive satanic cult imagery, perhaps because rather than the expected squalor of death metal noise they instead revive the shimmering guitar leads, classic grinding riffs and chilly organs of Blue Oyster Cult, Judas Priest and other 70s rock gods. ‘Meliora’ largely discards the lingering doom metal extremities of the Ghost sound and puts further emphasis on the smooth choruses and twinkling keyboards to the point where describing this as a metal album is something of a stretch. There are metallic riffs, yes, in “From the Pinnacle to the Pit” and “Absolution” (which comes with a whiff of Megadeth staple “Sweating Bullets”), but even these heavier cuts are given a pop rock polishing. Papa’s glaringly clean vocal tone is perfect at delivering the album’s silky choruses, and even on the expansive “Deus in Absentia” it’s these that dominate the songs’ focus.
The elephant in the room is that for all their melodic merits, Ghost are an inherently silly proposition in the 21st century. “Spirit” opens with theremin, xylophone and baritone choir so melodramatic it’s a struggle not to laugh, and in the (admittedly few) moments that the songwriting falters the sheer lunacy of the whole thing becomes overwhelmingly apparent. “He Is” shines as a particularly glistening centrepoint to the record, but the ease with which one can imagine the Nameless Ghouls and their popish leader performing it at the Eurovision Song Contest (Buzzfeed sum up the insanity of it pretty effectively, American readers) again makes it difficult to take seriously. When the silliness is embraced – “Mummy Dust” the perfect, piano-sprinkled example – is when Ghost are at their most enjoyable.
On a musicianship front, there’s little to find fault in, each member turning in a workmanlike performance with just a tinge of flair typical to European heavy rock groups. Papa Emeritus III is entirely indistinguishable from his previous incarnations, gifted with a dulcet voice with plenty of warmth but little in the way of range. The biggest weakness of ‘Meliora’ is just how safe the whole thing feels. With little progression from its two predecessors and a production job that airbrushes any rough edges it makes for an enjoyable but never exciting forty minutes.
Ghost’s mystique-drenched image is made all the more exciting by the fact that their music sounds nothing like what’s to be expected – but their latest album only partially convinces that they’ve got more in the tank than mystery. Safe and dated-sounding in a way neither of the prior two Ghost albums were despite its pristine sonic makeup, ‘Meliora’ is nonetheless perfectly pleasant. Whether perfectly pleasant is what you want from devil-worshipping Scandinavian Nazgul is entirely up to you.