It must've been the divine influence of the Dark Lord himself that mysterious Swedish “Satanic” metal band Ghost would play Portland the same night the Hollywood Theater screened a rare 35mm print of Dario Argento's hallucinogenic horror masterpiece Suspiria. Seriously, the pairing is much too perfect to chalk up to coincidence. Arriving at the Hawthorne Theater with the film's famously spooky soundtrack still ringing in my ears, it was like leaving a movie then driving to watch the deleted scenes reenacted live. Hell, with the band's penchant for saturating the stage with unnaturally bright primary colors, Argento could've been directing its light show.
Like Suspiria, Ghost is a bit too silly to be genuinely frightening. But while Argento aimed to scare the crap out of international audiences in 1977 (and probably did at the time), faking it is pretty much the band's entire point. With a singer who dresses like a demonic pope and “honors” Satan with melodies more sugar-sweet than a lot of power-pop groups, these guys are clearly taking the piss.
Faux-Satanism isn't a new concept in metal. As far back as Black Sabbath, bands have pretended to run with the devil, or at least coyly hinted at having some literal religious affiliation with him. Like studio gangstas rapping about accruing Schwarzenegger-level body counts, it's a good marketing ploy for its target demographic. Ghost, however, are pretty upfront about the fact that they're just fucking around. It's even funnier considering where they come from: In Scandinavia, metalheads take evildoing very seriously; the more churches a band has burned down, the greater its popularity. In that way, Ghost's whole schtick—including its sound, a throwback to '80s British metal, with psychedelic accents—seems like a commentary on the extremism of modern metal. Sure, having a frontman named Papa Emeritus—who, in the words of Nathan Carson, Willamette Week's resident expert on the metallic arts, “could easily double for Skeletor at a He-Man convention”—singing lyrics like “Sex sex sex/Receive the beast of evil” might seem goofy, but is a band that allegedly made necklaces out of its singer's skull fragments after he blew his brains out any less goofy?
Thankfully, the packed, hairy and 98 percent male crowd that gathered at the recently renovated Hawthorne Theater Tuesday night seemed in on the joke: Shouts of “Hail Satan!” were typically followed by “Hail Sweden!”, and the flashing of the devil horns seemed extra ironic. Emerging in darkness against a backdrop of stained glass and the tones of a church organ, the band tore into “Con Clavi Con Dio,” the roiling opening track from 2011 debut Opus Eponymous (which it performed in full), flooding the stage with red-tinted light. Indeed looking like Skeletor (or maybe Papa Shango), Mr. Emeritus stalked around the mic stand, gesturing like a preacher at the pulpit (...of Satan!), while his bandmates—wearing druid robes, their faces hidden—bashed out the vintage riffage in anonymity behind him. The album's slick production and pop hooks have led some metal aficionados to deride Ghost as “lightweight,” but live, the band rocked as hard as any I've seen at the Hawthorne. Of course, it's easy to see where a generation of fans raised on black metal's flayed-alive screams and bludgeoning attack would find the band weak: “Ritual” starts with a guitar riff worthy of Cheap Trick; a few songs feature “96 Tears”-style organ; and there wasn't a single animal sacrifice or staged crucifixion during the whole hour-long set. None of that matters, though. At its core, Ghost resurrects an idea lost in the stern-faced, eviler-than-thou attitude of today's heavy music: Being wicked is meant to be fun. And looking around as they played at the Hawthorne Theater crowd headbanging, air-guitaring, and, most of all, smiling, I'd say they've made some converts.