What, really, is metal even? Is it a type of music? An aesthetic? A community? Some combination of the three? What makes something “metal”? Is it a commitment to a certain style of sonic heaviness, or to pledge yourself over to the grim and cultish nature of the accompanying performance, or simply to find a niche in the metal community? If a band ascribes to a different sound, but fits in with the metal aesthetic, or has before found themselves entrenched in the community, a la Opeth, once a bastion of all of that was heavy and, indeed, brutal, but now an emulator of such acts as Camel and King Crimson, are they still heavy? What, at its core, constitutes metal?
To listen to Ghost’s third studio album, Meliora, is to ask oneself these questions. In their combination of influences lies the decidedly metal satanic aesthetic of black metal, the hazy riffing of 70’s rock, and synth-infused modern pop rock. It’s not a particularly “metal-sounding” mix, but Ghost has certainly found their niche within the community and stuck with it. If nothing else, they’re a much needed break from the genre’s march towards neverending, all-encompassing brutality, softness slashing a swath through slams to supply a stream of slightly-sappy 70’s-style songwriting. Are they, despite the nature of their music, a metal band? That’s something that must be left to the discretion of a listener willing to play more hard and fast with the ideals of the genre and prune metal’s family tree, as it were. But, no matter where they fall, do they write some damn good, jammin’ tunes? Abso-fucking-lutely.
Sonically, Ghost is the equivalent of watching a van full of 2nd-wave black metal musicians crash into the Blu Oyster Cult tour bus: a brave combo of a tried-and-true aesthetic stereotype of the genre with music that sounds absolutely nothing like it should given how they look. Poppy, light guitars ring with little more than a slight crunch, tightly locking bits into place like a well-oiled riff machine. Every part has real weight to it here. Nothing feels extraneous, and each different section of any song on Meliora feels meticulously crafted with an artisanal musical touch. Although some things definitely stand out more than others, the melodic quality of this album consistently stays at a high, high level. Like any group of masters in their craft, the musicians in Ghost have a perfect grasp on what makes up a compelling bit of songwriting, and they use this knowledge to their fullest extent. The rhythm performance is as solid as ever: tight, punchy, and perfectly on-point across the course of the album, the drums set a pace that is exactly what’s needed for Ghost’s riffy rocking. The bass is stable, and although it never really gets its own time to shine, its usage is entirely appropriate for the sound the band is going for here, and its accentuation provides fantastic undertones to each track. The synthwork is relatively minimal, but when it appears, its spectral tones always improve the sound and add a perfect touch of, well, ghostly (hur hur hur) atmosphere.
As always, the real star of the show is the otherwordly and evil vocals of Papa Emeritus, this time in his third incarnation. His voice guides listeners through the murky, smoke-filled Hell that Ghost’s music creates in the imagination, conjuring up images of devils and otherworldly horrors of which man cannot even begin to fathom. His banshee’s wail by way of sing-song works so well here because of the poignant lyricism: on each track, Emeritus becomes a storyteller, expressing the deep, existential human fear of the beyond through highly conceptual tracks about Satan, the fall of mankind, and devil children. The whole package of Meliora is tightly tied together by this excellent vocal performance and the emotive weight and strength Papa Emeritus manages to imbue every song with.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter so much any more whether or not this is truly a metal album or not. Yes, the riffing and the aesthetic are here, but the purposefully accessible lightness and poppy songwriting are as well. It’s anyone’s game as to where Ghost belongs in the fractured maze of modern genre placement. One thing’s for certain, though: like a fine wine, Ghost only strengthen with age, and it’s here, on their third album Meliora, that they prove themselves to be the unequivocal Kings Of The Underworld that they say they are.