Friday Song: “Dance Macabre”
A glam, satanic band from Sweden is making some of the most popular rock music today.
Satanic lyrics causing problems in Tennessee? Songs banned by US radio stations and albums by retail outlets? Makeup and glam production values concealing identities? Grammy Awards and nominations? Grammis Awards and nominations? Consistent and growing commercial success?
Some things in rock ‘n’ roll never change, from Kiss to Bowie to Ozzie to . . .
Ghost, a Swedish band formed in 2006, which released their first album in 2010.
In 2012, the band was recording their second album in Nashville, Tennessee, with producer Nick Raskulinecz (who also produced late-career Rush albums to great effect). Unable to find any choral singers willing to sing their lyrics, they recorded those parts in Hollywood. They also had trouble finding a manufacturer in the US to press their records because the album’s artwork featured nudity. Their music has been banned by US radio stations and networks, and in various stores.
Despite all this, they have become steadily more popular. In 2015, they made their US television debut, playing live on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert during a Halloween-themed episode. They appeared more recently on Jimmy Kimmel Live, performing inside the historic Mountain View Mausoleum in the Los Angeles suburb of Altadena. Joe Elliott, lead singer of Def Leppard, also a fan of the band, just released a cover version of Ghost’s song “Spillways.”
Tobias Forge, Ghost’s founder, lead singer, and main songwriter, was working a tech support job when he and a friend recorded the demos that led to Ghost being formed and, soon, a record deal. He also didn’t intend to be the lead singer, but fell into the role. He appears in prosthetics, wigs, and makeup, partly because he felt that he didn’t look like a rock star, and partly to conceal his identity. These touches proved effective — in recent years, he has appeared more often without makeup, and it’s surprising. He is best known for playing a Satanic anti-pope named Father Emeritus. He also adopts other personas and names at various times and as the mood strikes. Other band members are called the Nameless Ghouls, and appear wearing full masks, their true identities sometimes unknown. Some former Ghouls once sued Forge over profits from the band. Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters has performed incognito as a Ghoul at times.
I have a feeling Forge and I might be on the same page at some level, given this quote from a 2022 Rolling Stone interview:
We now have mechanisms within our own Western empire who are actively trying to, and to some degree have, created this time machine where we’re regressing. . . . We’re submitting to stupidity, which is fucking unbelievable.
The band’s gimmick is turning the Roman Catholic Church upside down — at least, that’s what they say. However, the music and spirit of the band is far more positive, pop-driven, and mainstream than you might expect, even if the subject matter is dark. The ultimate treatment feels more metaphorical and in some ways more powerful thanks to how they execute their gimmick and the heightened vocabulary the pretense infuses.
In case you were wondering, the Grammis are the Swedish equivalent of the US Grammy Awards. Ghost has won awards in both, and is up for a 2023 Grammy this weekend for Best Metal Performance. The band recently won the 2022 American Music Award for Favorite Rock Album.
“Dance Macabre,” the second single off the band’s 2018 album Prequelle, was released at a surprise live show in Hollywood on May 5, 2018. It went to #1 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Songs chart in February 2019, the band’s third consecutive song to hit those heights.
The music has so many hooks, you may not quite register that the song is about the Black Plague (a recurring topic — see their song, “Rats”) and how people would dance and party until they died to cope with the illness.