NECROLUST: IS GHOST THE NEW LITURGY?
Photo by Alex York
Okay, before I even get into any of this, I’m going to come clean and be totally honest. I absolutely abhor everything about Liturgy, and think that Ghost is an over-hyped gimmick that features musicians from much better bands and produces enjoyable hard rock songs. Big surprise there. Now that y’all know where I stand, I’m going to do my best to be as objective and unbiased as possible in the following post, because I genuinely think it’s an idea worth discussing, and don’t want to color the content with a bunch of transcenderpal black metal hate. Well, maybe a little.
Sweden’s secretive supergroup Ghost have been blowing up at an almost alarming rate over the past year, and it’s been driving me nuts. Mind you, this is my second go-round on the Opus Eponymous hype machine. I got to hear all about Ghost when I was in the UK and their first demo and ensuing “Elizabeth” single dropped. My editor at Terrorizer fell head over heels for them, my diehard underground bros traded their singles, Fenriz gave them his glowing seal of approval, and, yeah, I thought “Ritual” was catchy as the plague. Everyone loved them then, but barely anyone outside of the UK/Europe gave a flying fuck about ‘em.
Then they got picked up by Rise Above to release their debut, Opus Eponymous, which whipped the media into an even crazier frenzy of evil pope adoration (Portal who?). A year later, the record was given the re-release treatment in North America (Rise Above titles are distributed in the USA by Metal Blade), and the marketing apparatus whirred back into life. Press releases described them as a “black metal band” (uh, what?) and praised their esoteric Satanic messages, Decibel slapped ‘em on the cover, bloggers raved about the occult genius contained within Opus Eponymous’ catchy Blue Oyster Occult–isms.
Now, with a couple performances on US soil under their concealed bullet belts and a tour with Enslaved & Alcest on the dark horizon, Ghost are sitting pretty, riding the wave of positive press, and just starting to hear louder and louder rumbles of discontent. Their appearance at this year’s MDF left a few rapturous fans and a helluva lot of confused, unimpressed heshers. They fared better at their NYC gig [Read Axl’s rapturous review of that show here. – Ed.], but people were still skeptical. A lot of Ghost hate is starting to bubble up. They’re rapidly becoming one of “those” bands – loved, hated, and endlessly discussed.
Ghost’s polarizing effect and meteoric rise to the top of the list of metal’s preferred watercooler topics shares a few similarities with another now semi-well-known, not-really-metal-but-kind-of band. A band that people either celebrate, or downright loathe. A band that has been mocked, shunned, praised, and analyzed within an inch of its life, and essentially become the go-to whipping boys for the extreme metal world. The kings of hipster black metal.
Think about it. Liturgy weren’t always this despised; their troubles really began when erstwhile frontman and resident philosopher Hunter Hunt-Hendrix started flapping his gums and publishing manifestos about the death of black metal. Their earlier demos and first EP were barely noticed, and things only really started happening for them once 20 Buck Spin took notice and put out their perfectly serviceable, watered-down-Krallice-through-a-Weakling-filter Renihilation LP in 2009. Then homeboy started doing interviews, and, well, we all saw how well that went.
So what does a bunch of baby-faced Brooklynites have to do with the shadowy Swedes in Ghost, and what do either of them have to do with black metal?
Let’s break it down.
This one’s simple enough. Ghost hail from Sweden, where black metal’s flame first truly caught fire (hail Bathory!). The European metal scene, and Scandinavian metal scene in and of itself, are both very different from what goes on in North America, and a band like Ghost couldn’t have been spawned anywhere else. The tunes, sure; Blue Oyster Cult are from Long Island, and that’s 95% of Ghost’s sound right there. The aesthetic, though, and the way the band built themselves up through the underground via messageboard buzz, offering up limited releases, staying secretive and rarely performing live, etc., are very European. Before their labels took hold, Ghost didn’t want you to “Like” them on Facebook — they just quietly let you know that their demo was available, and already almost sold out.
Liturgy, on the other hand, could never have happened anywhere but in Brooklyn. The grittier, artsier counterpart to Manhattan’s glitz and the outer bouroughs’ grime plays host to countless skinny white kids with trust funds and skinnier white kids without them, nearly all of whom fancy themselves artists of some sort. It’s a hipster mecca, and that influence bleeds into a staggering amount of the music that springs up around Bedford Ave. I live in a colorfully rough part of Brooklyn, and am constantly bemused by the hipsteratti I see parading through my neighborhood (I fall into the “non-artistic but still broke white kid” category). The crux of it all, Williamsburg, is rife with coffee houses, organic grocery stores, vintage shops, record stores, venues, practice spaces, and countless bars, and is a veritable breeding ground for interesting music and oddball ideas. Liturgy’s sound, look, and the way they’ve conducted themselves is wholeheartedly American. They make at least a little bit of sense next to a band like Castevet or Wolves in the Throne Room, but drop those dudes on a stage with bands like Urgehal, Adorior, or Impaled Nazarene, and see how well they do. The reaction a few of my friends had after seeing Liturgy play in London may give you a clue: “More like fookin’ ShitOrgy, innit?”
The biggest part of Ghost’s shtick is, of course, their appearance. Faceless figures in black robes, conducted by a skeleton-faced Satanic pope in crimson wielding incense, and riffing away in the name of the Dark One? That’s way more visually stimulating than watching another bunch of hairy, tattooed, beer-bellied dudes grunting into a mic and swinging their Flying Vs around. Ghost know this full well, and do their best to create a theatrical atmosphere whenever they step onto a stage. The Ghoul with No Name’s makeup is stylistically close to corpsepaint, but not quite there. Instead of invoking nameless dread and decaying flesh, his design is clean, calculated, and easily recognizable. I’m surprised Gaahl never thought to hire the dude’s makeup artist before Gorgoroth bit the dust. The most obvious comparison to their live get-ups is how Australian terrors Portal present themselves onstage – robes, obscured faces, horror. The difference there is that Portal’s music is authentically terrifying, while Ghost’s is a groovy Satanic singalong.
Liturgy, on the other hand, have made it a point to eschew corpsepaint or any of the visual trappings of black metal in favor of street clothes, and since they hail from the mean(ish) streets of New York, more often than not, that means… flannel, button-ups, skinny jeans, and plaid. They couldn’t look more unlike a black metal band if they consciously tried. (And remember, they do try to make very clear that they’re above that sort of thing, so, uh, mission accomplished, lads!) A lot of the online hate has been directed at Hunt-Hendrix, partly because he serves as the band’s very outspoken mouthpiece, and partly because metal is a very testosterone-fueled, macho sort of subculture, and, well, Triple H kind of looks like someone’s spaced-out lesbian aunt, or an overgrown Justin Bieber impersonator who’s badly in need of a trim. The guy couldn’t intimidate my granny’s chihuahua. I don’t condone the language that is sometimes directed at him or the band – homophobia and its associated slurs are never ever cool, funny, or acceptable – but unfortunately, am not entirely surprised at how the metal community has reacted. There is a certain look, a uniform if you will, that metalheads have adopted in order to recognize one another and declare their allegiances, but Liturgy just don’t give a fuck about it. Annoying? Yes. Brave? A bit, actually. My favorite comment in regards to HHH so far is, “The guy’s a weenie, but at least he has the balls to be a weenie.”
Ghost’s philosophy is based in the occult, the esoteric, and above all, the Satanic. It all boils down to the idea that the accessibility of their music will serve to draw in a wider audience, then indoctrinate them with Ghost’s Luciferian propaganda. They aim to “communicate pure evil via entertainment,” which is actually a pretty interesting idea. So many extreme metal bands harbor deeply held ideas and philosophies but due to the nature of the beast (or more specifically, his preferred vocal styles) are unable to get their messages across clearly. Ghost bypass that by doing their best King Diamond impression and wrapping each sugary note in diabolical imagery and horror-fueled lyrics.
“Our mission is not as much about conversion as it is about underlining which path you all have chosen to go, and where it will ultimately lead you,” according to an interview.
Liturgy’s reliance on harsh vocals place them in the former camp – you can’t tell what Columbia alum Hunt-Hendrix is going on about, which may explain why he likes doing interviews so much. In order to avoid getting fed up and punching my laptop screen, I’m not going to try and explain Triple H’s theories on black metal in any sort of detail. You can read his manifesto thingamajig for that, or check out the interview that this very website posted a couple years back. It seems as though his basic point it that Liturgy are all about positivity and inverting the nihilistic anti-humanism that has formed a cornerstone of black metal’s very essence since the beginning.
He’s explained that, “For me the meaning of black metal has something to do with a longing for ecstatic annihilation, a perfect void. An obliteration that brings about purity. The absolute, impossible, contradictory limit.”
Everything he says equates to pretty much the polar opposite of “no mosh, no core, no fun, no trends,” “if you are a false, don’t entry,” or “anti-human/anti-life.”
BLACK METAL CRED
Are Ghost black metal? Their publicity materials sure make it seem that way, but as a friend of mine astutely pointed out, the inclusion of those two little words in anything is a nearly fail-safe way to get bloggers chattering. Clever. The answer there is, no, they’re not black metal. They’re an occult hard rock band, like Coven or Bedemon back in the day. There are Satanic elements within the band – Satanic imagery and allegiance, a stated malevolent intent – but there’s no musical correlation between Ghost and the black arts. But hey, if you’re of the sort that thinks black metal is an idea and not necessarily a sound – if chromatic chords, tremolo picking, blastbeats, and Blood Fire Death mean nothing to you — then sure, call Ghost a black metal band if you’d like.
Are Liturgy black metal? If black metal to you is nothing BUT a sound, and philosophy doesn’t factor in at all, you might think so – maybe. Their earlier material owed much more to black metal than the new album does, but philosophically speaking, they’re the exact opposite of black metal. There is no Satan, no evil, no hate, no fear, no destruction, no chaos, and no soul in the music they create. They don’t write elegies to the forest or mourn our dying environment. There’s no coldness, no grimness, no desolation. Their intention to invert the inverted has a bit in common with true black metal’s aims to blaspheme and subvert, but two lefts don’t make a right. Liturgy may own a few legit black metal records and utilize a few elements from black metal music, but they are not a black metal band. They’re something else – whatever that may be is up to them and to their listeners.
Liturgy are one of the most hated bands around, and have been gaining steam for the past couple years. They’re metal pariahs, but have been welcomed with open arms by those who exist outside of that world. Ghost are still a very 33/33/33 kind of band – they’re loved, they’re hated, and they’re also liked. For Liturgy, there’s no in between – you’re in or out. Ghost, however, have some wriggle room. For example, I dig their music. They write solid, fun songs with twisted lyrics, but are such an insufferably hyped-up, fabricated entity that I can’t really back ‘em that hard. A good amount of people seem to share that opinion as well, so Ghost might escape the brunt of the backlash that Liturgy have endured. As long as The Ghoul with No Name doesn’t start writing fairy tales or Valley Girling his way through Scion interviews, they may make it out of here alive.<
So, you tell me. Is Ghost the new Liturgy?
Kim Kelly (or Grim Kim, if we’re being formal) scribbles for a number of sweet metal publications (Terrorizer, Brooklyn Vegan, Invisible Oranges, Hails & Horns, and tons more), promotes wicked records with Catharsis PR, and road dogs for your favorite bands. Keep up with her exploits & numerous band recommendations on Twitter, or peep her blog Ravishing Grimness.