It has been three years since Sweden’s Ghost released the wildly successful Meliora, which peaked at number eight on the Top 200 chart, led by its number five single “Cirice.” 2017’s Popestar EP hit number 16 while its single, “Square Hammer,” topped the mainstream rock list. Since then, Ghost’s tenure has been tumultuous: The band’s “Nameless Ghouls” sued mastermind, chief songwriter, and vocalist Tobias Foge, ultimately unmasking him as all three incarnations of Satanic pope and frontman Papa Emeritus. Ghost carries on with Foge as “Cardinal Copia,” fronting an entirely new cast of musicians.
Prequelle, the band’s fourth album delivers on the hooky hard rock promise of Meliora by doubling down on the ’70s and ’80s rock tropes that informed it. Foge and company have drawn from a wide pool of inspirations here, from classic late-’70s Blue Öyster Cult and Alice Cooper to British heavy metal bands from Def Leppard to Judas Priest, to occult metal provocateurs like King Diamond and pop songwriting that owes much to ABBA. This ambitious set uses the backdrop of the Black Plague during the dark ages as a device for these songs to pivot on. It’s not about death so much as how one lives and enjoys life until death inevitably arrives. After opener “Ashes,” where creepily ambient electronics frame a haunted kid’s choir singing “Ring Around the Rosie” — a song that dates from the Plague years in the 14th century — comes the hit single “Rats,” whose double entendre lyrics equate human behavior to be as ravenously bloodthirsty and contagious as rodents. Introduced by whomping snare and kick drum, a stuttering Vivian Campbell riff and ringing twin leads open an insanely catchy melody, articulated by Foge/Cardinal Copia’s vocals which alternate between sickly sweet to guttural. The layered choruses could soundtrack any teenage night-driving fantasy. “Faith” wears its metal chops proudly, with Dio-inspired chugs behind Foge. “Dance Macabre” is melodic hard rock brilliance, juxtaposing Blue Öyster Cult’s reliance on knotty riffs and upbeat hooks with a vocal chorus straight from the Scorpions’ fake book, and framed by Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman’s cinematic bombast. “Witch Image” is occult hard pop at its best (complete with phase-shifted drums), wedding a seductive melody to the lyrics “While you sleep/In earthly delight/Someone’s flesh/Is rotting tonight….” The album also boasts a pair of instrumentals: The drifting hard prog of “Miasma” and “Helvetesfonster,” where Yes and early King Crimson meet Opeth. “See the Light” flirts with power balladry while transforming itself into a crunchy, headbanging anthem, while closer “Life Eternal” is a ballad proper, offering a sensitive lead vocal that recalls Michael Stipe’s, singing about undying love even as mortal death occurs amid a swelling church organ, tender piano, and spidery guitars with an operatic chorus in the final third. On Prequelle, Ghost deliver fully on the promises of earlier records. Their strengths –including one for imitation — are fully assembled and focused in an exercise of irresistible arena rock excess without sounding like a pastiche.