Ghost + All Them Witches + Tribulation
@ SSE Wembley Arena, London
November 22nd 2019
Review by Jack Merry
Photography by Rebecca Bush
On a particularly cold and damp November evening, twelve and a half thousand people made their way to London’s SSE Wembley Arena for a stop on Ghost’s hotly anticipated ‘The Ultimate Tour Named Death’ world tour.
Following a stint supporting Metallica on their 26-date summer European ‘WorldWired’ stadium tour and a 32-date Fall headline arena tour of North America, Ghost return to the UK in support of the critically acclaimed and Grammy nominated album Prequelle, an album which achieved Top 10 status in 15 countries.
That’s no small feat for a group of Swedish masked occultists. My personal introduction to Ghost was in 2015, with the release of Meliora and its Grammy award winning lead single, ‘Cirice’, and I was instantly transfixed on the meticulous song-craft, sublime melodies and crushing guitar riffs contained within. Over the last four years or so, I’ve seen and heard a sizeable portion of complaints about Ghost; saying that they aren’t heavy enough, or that they aren’t even metal at all and shouldn’t be classified as such. The hate I’ve seen towards them has astounded me at times. It’s entirely unfair to berate a band for doing what they set out to do. Obviously, taste is subjective, but metal can still be metal without death growls and blast beats.
Joining Ghost on tour are Swedish heavy gothic metallers Tribulation and the psychedelic blues-rock group All Them Witches from Nashville, Tennessee. It’s a pretty varied yet impressive package to say the least.
Ghost have perfected their blend of rock and metal with Beatles-esque pop harmonies, and the show I witnessed at Wembley Arena more than proves this. The vast majority of the band’s songs have well-crafted pop hooks and melodies that dig deep into your head and remain there for days, maybe weeks on end.
Kicking off the evening’s proceedings were Tribulation (5/5) with their brand of death metal mixed with lashings of goth-rock and a dash of folk. From the jangling guitar intro of ‘Nightbound’ echoing around the arena to chaotic aural onslaught of ‘Strange Gateways Beckon’, the band had me hooked.
Those who are close to me know that death metal vocals aren’t really my thing at all; but something about Tribulation, and singer / bassist Johannes Andersson, made me sit up and take notice. The band’s take on the genre is really quite melodic in places with long and drawn out instrumental passages, which is not a bad thing in my book.
Tribulation allowed their songs to breathe, and the musicianship on display was stunning. I was taken aback by the sharp solos, powerhouse drumming and the rumbling bass, complete with a guitar player cloaked in a floaty outfit, one not unlike a Ringwraith from Lord of the Rings.
It’s just a shame the arena was half empty, even by the time the band were wrapping things up, which was probably due to queues to get merchandise. Any support act that can get me to save their entire discography to my Apple Music not even five minutes after having finished their set deserve solid praise. A great start to the show!
Nightbound / Melancholia / The Lament / The World / Cries From The Underworld / The Motherhood of God / Strange Gateways Beckon
After a short break, All Them Witches (4/5) were up next. I have been aware of Nashville group All Them Witches for a couple of years now and was eagerly awaiting my chance to see the band live. I was surprised to see them polarise the audience so much, as some people around me were loving the band’s doomy psychedelic blues and headbanging along to the planet-sized riffs spewing out from the fingers of guitarist Ben McLeod, while others sat blissfully unaware on mobile phones, clearly bored stiff by the group.
All Them Witches are admittedly an odd choice to open, as Ghost’s shiny, crisp pop metal is worlds apart from the ultra distorted, rough, heavy blues on display by the Witches. The droning chords of opener ‘Funeral for a Great Drunken Bird’ lead into the rumbling yet seductive ‘3-5-7’ as the band’s sonic journey takes us through a set filled with fuzz-drenched guitar riffs, pounding drums reminiscent of John Bonham and powerful, chest-beating bass lines that create a foreboding atmosphere before a crescendo into the blues rock explosion of ‘When God Came Back’ that I completely adored.
The band’s performance is more akin to an aural experience than a visual one, and it’s all that was needed. All Them Witches relied on letting the music doing the talking, only addressing the crowd a handful of times. Whilst not for everybody, they provided a fantastic and memorable set filled with incredibly satisfying moments.
ALL THEM WITCHES SETLIST:
Funeral for a Great Drunken Bird / 3-5-7 / 1×1 / Diamond / Charles William / Dirt Preachers / Blood and Sand / Milk and Endless Waters / When God Comes Back
And now for the night’s main attraction: Ghost (5/5). As the house lights dimmed, an entire arena erupted into cheers and applause in anticipation for the ritual to come.
The band’s image and eccentric on-stage presence are also highly memorable, with lead singer and band leader Tobias Forge portraying a character known as ‘Cardinal Copia’ who wears a variety of coloured tuxedos reminiscent of Cesar Romero’s Joker and occasionally full cardinal attire, and the other seven members (referred to as ‘Nameless Ghouls’) clad in black costumes that are virtually identical, save for the face-concealing silver horned masks.
Prequelle opener ‘Ashes’ plays over the PA in the arena with its eerie nursery rhyme vocals before the curtain falls and the band burst into the sublime ‘Rats’. Cardinal Copia commands the stage, singing tales of the medieval era and the Bubonic Plague, and by the time the first chorus of “RATS!” hits, he has the entire arena in the palm of his hand, watching his every move.
The band’s theatrics, as well as the costumes and characters, play a major part in their show, with a stage designed to resemble a church, black and white tiled flooring, various platforms and a huge stained glass window backdrop featuring some iconic Ghost imagery. It’s a setup unlike anything I’ve seen since Iron Maiden brought their Legacy of the Beast tour to London last year, and Ghost are definitely vying for that top spot on this run.
‘Absolution’ has been a personal and fan favourite since its release on Meliora, and I was genuinely surprised when I heard its mammoth opening riff begin. It’s a huge song, and as Copia sings “Put your hands up and reach for the sky, cry for absolution,” 12,500 people obey him. His ability to control an audience is truly something you have to experience. ‘Faith’ from Prequelle is up next and it’s another very well crafted heavy metal track, with its meticulous production and blistering guitar solos. A very strong opening set of songs from Ghost, and it only gets better from here.
Earlier this year, Ghost released a double sided single entitled Seven Inches of Satanic Panic, containing brand new compositions straight out of the 1960’s. ‘Kiss the Go Goat’ and ‘Mary On A Cross’ both get the live treatment on this tour, with the latter appearing early on. ‘Mary On A Cross’ is an absolutely irresistibly catchy slice of perfect pop rock, drenched in swirling keys and chiming guitars and a very vintage feel, and it comes over incredibly well live, with fans singing along to every word.
At this point in a band’s set, some people would use the new material as an excuse to use the bathroom, or go to buy more drinks. Not here. Ghost manage to keep the audience enthralled, even during the short interval of ‘Devil Church’. This features a heavy organ sound, before developing into an extended guitar sequence between the two Nameless Ghoul guitarists. They start trading licks; bettering one another, almost bickering and it’s highly comical and hugely entertaining to watch. Because of the masks, the Ghouls have to show personality through their movements and they completely succeed here, as they laugh, point and shake their heads at one another. One ghoul drags the other up front, motioning him to stand there and play. The other ghoul turns to the drummer and mimics a drum pattern, before playing the Eastenders theme tune. Yes, you read that right. As it’s a London show, they pay tribute to the city by playing that, and it’s pretty strange to watch. Only the first of many strange things tonight, it would seem.
The subdued intro to ‘Cirice’ soon rings across the arena when the duel has finished, before leading the charge into the crushing mid-tempo main riff as Copia cries out the gorgeous chorus of “I can feel the thunder that’s breaking in your heart, I can see through the scars inside you” and it’s affecting stuff, followed by a stunning guitar solo passage. The entire band are incredibly tight, and it’s during this song I first focused on the drummer Ghoul and realised just how excellent they were.
‘Miasma’, an instrumental track from Prequelle, has the second strange moment of the night. It’s preceded by a plague doctor in full costume entering onto the stage, drenched in swirling fog, to check on the audience. Cardinal Copia disappears, and as the track powers along to its grand finale, the Ghouls ramp up the speed and a person dressed as a pope (or an anti-pope?) is escorted onto the drum riser and bursts into a saxophone solo. It’s an eye-wateringly epic moment, and one that would make people think you were crazy if you had to explain it to someone.
Next up is one of only two songs tonight from 2013’s Infestissumam album, ‘Ghuleh / Zombie Queen’. It’s a solid track that keeps building into a near-rockabilly finale, as if written in collaboration with the Stray Cats. “Up from the stinking dirt she rises ghostly pale / Shape-shifting soon but now she’s rigid, stiff and stale.” It’s demented, but it’s got such an uplifting musicality to it, you can picture Forge singing it with a smile on his face under his Copia mask.
Both ‘Spirit’ and ‘From The Pinnacle To The Pit’ are from Meliora, and they grind along with powerful riffs, but the latter is the standout. Its heavy-as-sin bassline introduction could shake planets from their orbit, and the guitars sound even better and bigger than they do on the record. Alongside hummable melody lines, it’s one of the heaviest performances of the night.
After this excellent display, Ghost return to their debut album for two songs, ‘Ritual’ and ‘Satan Prayer’. ‘Ritual’ is an absolute monster, with its chunky and propulsive rhythm section powering the song’s guitars, and ‘Satan Prayer’ is a slower, more melodic piece that caused fans to erupt in delirious glee.
‘Year Zero’ gets an outing with its demonic chanting and church bells. It’s an inspired addition to the night’s ritual, and it’s performed beautifully; with its hard rock grind playing out underneath the chants. ‘He Is’ showcases Ghost’s keen attention to doom-infused progressive elements with glistening pop sheen and ethereal vocals. It’s always been a live favourite, and it was no different here. It’s a stand-out performance, with the entire crowd singing along.
Addressing the crowd, Cardinal Copia asks us if we wanted a heavy song next. Of course, we obliged him, and queries of wanting our “asses wobbled” and “taints tickled” were met with rapturous applause as he introduced ‘Mummy Dust’. On the record it’s heavy, but live it takes on a whole new level as the song chugs along and the vocals are almost growled. It’s another sublime performance with fantastic harmonies and phenomenal lead guitar work.
Coming into the home stretch now, we get to the aforementioned ‘Kiss The Go-Goat’ with its punk-ish approach and cries of “Hey baby, kiss the goat” echoing around the arena. ‘Dance Macabre’ is one of the catchiest songs Ghost have ever written. It’s a perfect marriage of endlessly endearing hooks, rock riffs and Ghost’s twisted style of story-telling. The song’s lyrics focus on one person begging for a dance before the plague hits. “Something within your eyes said it could be the last time, ‘fore it’s over… I just wanna be, I wanna bewitch you, all night…” It’s all good stuff, and it’ll be stuck in my head for a long time to come.
Finishing up with the glorious synth hit ‘Square Hammer’ has the arena drenched in different colour lights, like a tongue-in-cheek 80’s Halloween party. It was a huge hit on release, and has remained a fan favourite. “Are you on the square? Are you on the level?” sings Copia, in an infectious chorus. The crowd are going wild as tonight’s ritual comes to a close. The drums clash and cascade into an outrageous finale while the guitar leads twist and turn to a grand finish. “Are you ready to swear right here, right now?” is the final question of the night.
It’s a memorable night, and one of the most entertaining and well produced shows I’ve ever seen. Ghost walk off stage safe in the knowledge that 12,500 people have been converted in London’s ritual, and those who have seen Ghost before had their love for the band reaffirmed and enlivened. I went to the show not knowing quite what to expect, and left knowing that I will be booking tickets for every tour in future. Ghost just gained themselves another fan for life.
A metal show of the highest quality, and packed to the rafters with sing-a-long hooks, infectious melodies and pure, theatrical showmanship that will take a lot to top. Come back soon, guys.
Ashes / Rats / Absolution / Faith / Mary On A Cross / Devil Church / Duel Guitar Solo / Cirice / Miasma / Ghuleh / Zombie Queen / Helvetesfonster (abridged) / Spirit / From The Pinnacle To The Pit / Ritual / Satan Prayer / Year Zero / Spoksonat / He Is / Mummy Dust / Kiss The Go-Goat / Dance Macabre / Square Hammer