The Devil in Metal: 4. Ghost’s Meliora

If you’re confused by what’s happening here, feel free to refer to my introductory post which explains this whole thing.

My two previous posts traced out the ways in which Behemoth’s impressive and profane album The Satanist ends up creating an all-too-typical devil who celebrates domination, resentment, and oppression, rather than offering a way out from underneath them. Thankfully, there are other devils making their way through the realm and some of them dance to a noticeably different beat.

Sweden’s Ghost gives us one of these in their 2015 album Meliora.

Since 2006, Swedish band Ghost have been all about the devil. Though they started out largely as a metal band, recent years have seen them move into something more akin to a campy rock ‘n roll outfit, complete with costumes and lavish backdrops and set-pieces. Sure, they’ve kept Satan and all things devilish, but now Ghost are more about theatricality and massive hooks than shock and awe. Instead of their weirdness and genre-defying antics holding them back, however, they’ve quickly gained a massive following, opening the way to performances on Stephen Colbert and celebrity-replete instagram videos.

Part of the fun with them has been their (up until recent) anonymity: the lead singer has hidden himself within the trappings of a rotating cast of dark popes, and the remaining band members have worn metal masks and been dubbed simply as nameless ghouls.[1] 

Despite their tamer sound, Ghost’s 2015 album Meliora sets forth a far more radical Satan than Behemoth’s. Though their radio-friendly hooks and harmonies might deceive you, this is a devil that overturns the heavens.

Let’s tilt this baby.

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After album-opener “Spirit”’s[2] invocation of the muses (“Throw yourself/Into the vessel of possibilities/Your green muse/The apparatus for soul mobility/A gateway to secrecy”), we’re taken ringside to Satan’s fall from heaven in “From the Pinnacle to the Pit.” Despite his rejection, despite his plummeting, the devil refuses to bow, but takes his plight as further proof of his identity as the one who rejects heaven’s imperial rule: “You are cast out from the heavens to the ground/Blackened feathers falling down/You will wear your independence like a crown.”

Just when it looks like we might be getting ready to hear another tale of the broken and resentful Deceiver striking back to hurt others, however, the album heads in a different direction with “Cirice.” This track kicks off as an unnamed narrator—Is this you? Is this me? Is it the devil?—looks on a lover as they break open in light of their damage and scars. Far from this being something to turn away from or a weakness to be denied, it is in this fracturing that both parties begin to find healing, together: “Now there is nothing between us/From now on our merge is eternal/Can’t you see that you’re lost?/Can’t you see that you’re lost without me?” This theme of finding intimacy and support precisely where life falls apart is one that continues to come up throughout the album, as “He Is” zooms in on two lovers standing on the brink as the world burns. Instead of attempting to manage things on their own, these companions stretch out for help “to the beast/With many names.”

And it's within this context that Ghost’s different devil begins to emerge.

This one is the light that illuminates the world, that gives being to everything. He is the Father and nourisher, who rises up against the forces of totality, the “Insurrection” who banishes doubt and provides shelter to his people. This one rejects the laws of the empire and holds together all that is from disintegrating into nothingness. This one provides the anchor point as he goes ahead before his own. When they plunge headlong into the abyss, they find him there and waiting, drawing them into company with others.

“Majesty” and “Absolution” take us further into the depths of Hell where the Devil holds court among the despoiled masses of humanity. Failing and faltering people look upon him and pour out worship and service at his feet. Bereft of life and hope, they now turn to the only one they can find, the one who is death incarnate: “Pathetic humans in despair/Deface, deflowered, now to death devout./A fallen angel in his glare,/In the midst of sinners kneeling down before His clout.” This ancient one has authority and is all beautiful, the source of beauty itself. For broken humanity, “Absolution” offers up a prayer for deliverance. Regardless of the obstacles that have come up, our hero has pressed on in the hopes of grabbing Destiny by the reins. The only way that this can come about is through purification, through cleansing, through absolution. Those who beseech Lucifer in this way will find that salvation is possible: “Put your hands up and reach for the sky/Cry for absolution/You’ll be down on your knees and you’ll cry/Cry for absolution” for “All those things that you desire,/You will find there in the fire.”

“Deus In Absentia” closes things out by continuing to refuse the deceptive consolations of eternity. The world is burning and death is inescapable. Some choose to flee to the comforts of religion, seeking a flight from the Real, but there is another way, one that beckons, that calls us to move more deeply into existence, not away from it. Fleeing to the hills does not offer a way out, but plunging into life on the ground opens up a pathway by which to live well, while our time lasts. Here is found companionship and strength. Here is a way to reject resignation before the tragedies of finitude. Here is a current of meaning amidst the false consolations of the empires of the earth.

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Embracing the world as it is, and not as we would have it, Meliora holds out the possibility of joy and festivity and passion, precisely where things break down: “The world is on fire/And you are here to stay and burn with me/A funeral pyre/And we are here to revel forevermore” (“Deus In Absentia”). This is eternity, this is infinity, this surrender to the sheer play of existence. Only in refusing to veil our eyes from things as they actually are, and only in the admission of our frailty and fragility may true and clear-eyed sight be found. This devil is one who has gone before us, who is with us, and who provides a way in which to live all-in, even when the world careens off the rails.

Against Behemoth’s devil who rages and inflicts devastation upon the world, Ghost’s is one who takes up his lot with us, and in the unavoidable tragedies and turmoil of life provides the strength and sustenance to carry on in solidarity with others. Though he is a lord of sorts, he does not use his power to further degrade humanity, but draws them into a festal gathering that dances forth in passion and laughter, refusing to go quietly into the night, ever reveling in the drama of Being, however short its span may be. This devil is not about domination and pain, not about resentment and fury, but about making a way in the darkness and going ahead of us into the waste places in order that we might find a company of fellow outcasts when we find ourselves wandering through Desolation’s realm. We only have to reach out for help and we will be delivered into existence and all that it beckons us into.

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What is striking about this devil is the way that he comes to us and is with us when life breaks open. He is also with us when language breaks open. As we stumble and reel, pitched forward by the linguistic and existential shifts going on beneath our feet, we’re left with a disturbing impression. As the stars begin to leave our eyes and as our heads begins to clear, we find here that this one with “many names” bears a striking resemblance to another many-named, homeless wanderer who was cast off by the powers of this world, and who also came “that they may have life.” We slowly and uneasily begin to glimpse that the beast, the lion, and the lamb may all be names for the one who consistently exceeds our naming.

More on that, next time.

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(Sometimes timing is providential: Ghost's newest album Prequelle was released yesterday. You should check it out; it's really catchy.)

[1] This anonymity ended over the last year when current and previous ghouls came forward with accusations about financial mistreatment from bandleader Tobias Forge.

[2] I’m sure there’s a better way to punctuate this, but it is what it is.