Editorial: The Problem With Ghost Is The Vocals
I want to like Ghost. I really do. They’re doing so many things right — the theater, the mythology, the maybe-but-not-really revolving frontmen, the world-domination campaign. And Hell, upon listening to Meliora, I even found myself liking the music. Even though the stripped-bare retro-metal thing isn’t often my favorite sound, I think they’re using it, along with creepy chorals and singing saw-style sound effects, to create a really powerful atmosphere that is refreshing within the scene.
But the vocals ruin it. Ghost’s vocals just… fucking… suck. Those thin, reedy, nasal vocals, with no real power behind them. They actually make me angry. They always sound like someone singing a song to someone else in the hopes that they’ll recognize the tune. What’s that song? You know, the one that goes ‘Bum bum buuum’… It’s that sort of bored, blasé-sounding vocal style that’s so present in indie rock, but fuck, even The Strokes have some shrieking now and then. There’s no passion in the Emeritus vocals. This sounds like a singer who’s rolling his eyes the whole time.
I associate these vocals with indie rock because most indie rock is so often couched in that too-cool eyes-half-open heroin-loving attitude. It often comes with that Californian habit of not actually finishing your sentences. Man, that moment at the end of ‘Bang A Gong’, where he just… you know? ‘Cause… yeah, man, wow. And let’s be honest, Ghost are a metal band that carries the most weight with non-metalheads due to their theatricality. That’s fine — hey, Gwar did the same thing; their early material isn’t traditional metal, and people love foam rubber. But indie rockers usually love metal for the worst reasons. It’s always about the irony of extremity. So when I hear Ghost’s vocals, I hear someone singing metal with a wink to the audience. We’re doing this insane dress-up music, but don’t worry, it’s not like we’re really excited about it or anything.
Given that my tastes lean towards thrash, black, and death metal, one might claim I’m just unused to clean vocals. Bullshit. Plenty of bands do clean or retro vocals and thoroughly entertain me. Hell, I love King Diamond, and that dude sounds like an opera singer with dementia. No, it’s the lack of power. I want vocals with a punch to them. The Punch, I’d posit, is one of the most underappreciated aspects of metal music, and one of the few things nü metal did right. That slam in the chest that comes with a guitar kick or a shout, what Slipknot once called “the push that makes you move,” that’s what’s lacking in Ghost’s vocals. If Ghost played their music with an energetic, impassioned singer, it would elevate them to new heights. As it is, it’s all a bunch of drug store waiting room music.
Here’s my conspiracy theory: Ghost are actually fronted by the guys of They Might Be Giants. While the Nameless Ghouls sound genuinely European in interviews, I can’t help but wonder if Flansbourgh and Linnell are really the creative force behind the band. Maybe one day they were sitting around, tired of teaching children the value of learning, and decided they wanted to create an insane Satanic metal band. So they reached out to their friends in the industry, described their vision, and put together a team of acquaintances from the metal scene who would be down to do a high-profile project. Then they just hired someone to play Papa Emeritus for all face-forward events, and they wheel John Linnell out in make-up for the actual live shows.
It would explain so much — the budget used for those costumes, the immediate hype that Ghost received upon releasing the Elizabeth single, and, yes, the fucking vocals! Here, listen to “Birdhouse In Your Soul”:
And now listen to “Depths of Satan’s Eyes”:
Tell me you can’t hear a similarity! Tell me you can’t hear the same reedy vocal going on in both songs!
It was when one of the Ghouls leaked that Dave Grohl has played with Ghost in the past that it dawned on me. Maybe the whole band is a supergroup of high-profile rockers coming together to jam on some good-but-not-too-extreme-as-to-frighten-people-off doom metal. Who knows who else is under those masks? Brent Hinds? Matthew Bellamy of Muse? Joe Jonas? The possibilities are endless! And always with the stylish, savvy minds of They Might Be Giants at the forefront, recruiting band members from across the mainstream music scene.
A stretch? Absolutely. Why would the They Might Be Giants guys endanger that sweet, sweet Disney theme song money to play metal? But look, I’m not here to try and blow up anyone’s spot or change the state of metal. I’m just a guy who really wants to like Ghost but hates the vocals. I’m trying to explain away the vocals any way I can the same way anti-vaxxers want to explain away mental illness with government spooks (well, not the exact same way, in that I’m not endangering the lives of children).
Ghost are an interesting band. They make metal cool, and in a lot of ways metal needs to be cool again. But man, those vocals are the worst. They ruin everything about the band. So hopefully, there’s a reason, a weird, circuitous one involving genre-spanning secrets. Because otherwise it just means they suck.