Somewhere in his dark heart, Tobias Forge must have known all along that the time for unmasking would eventually come. Kiss, the Ghost mastermind's favorite childhood band, had famously kept their real faces under wraps for nearly a decade, until declining commercial fortunes forced them to give their Lick It Up album a boost with a big reveal.
Prequelle, Ghost's fourth full-length album, needs no such attention-grabbing gimmicks. If anything, the theatrical Swedish satanic pop-metal band has gone from strength to strength since its 2010 debut, Opus Eponymous; Meliora, Ghost's last album, peaked at No. 8 on the Billboard 200, and the band earned a Best Metal Performance Grammy in 2016 for its U.S. radio hit "Cirice." So why should Forge discard his anonymity now, even if everyone kinda already knew that the satanic popes Papa Emeritus I, II and III were really the same guy all along?
Sure, Forge is currently being sued by some of Ghost's former Nameless Ghouls, a situation that would have inevitably resulted in the revelation of his true identity. But one also senses, upon listening to Prequelle — which features Forge in the less-fearsome guise of Cardinal Copia — that it was simply time for him to step forward. After all, when you've made a record as excellent as Prequelle is, you deserve a chance to bask publicly in its infernal glow.
"Ashes," the album's creepy opening track, features children chanting "Ring Around the Rosie," an English nursery rhyme often claimed to have originated from the Great Plague that wiped out nearly a quarter of London's population in 1665 and 1666. It makes a perfect introduction to an album about a disease-ridden world teetering on the edge of apocalypse, or at least a new Dark Ages — both because the rhyme is so ominous, and because it's so damn catchy.
Which is, frankly, the magic of Ghost — and this album — in a nutshell. As lyrically bleak as Prequelle's songs may be, they're also catchier than bubonic plague, and considerably more fun. "Rats" harnesses a harmonized "Whoa-oh-oh-oh" chorus celebrating infestations of the titular vermin to the fist-pumping chug of early Mötley Crüe, while "See the Light" is the sort of piano-driven power ballad that Elton John would have killed for back in the 1980s, albeit one with a lyrical refrain of "Every day that you feed me with hate/I grow stronger." "Witch Image" delivers the helpful reminder that "While you sleep/In earthly delight/Someone's flesh/Is rotting tonight," embedded in music so blissfully hooky that you'll immediately want to high-five the person next to you and yell, "Dude! Someone's flesh is rotting tonight!"
As on Ghost's previous records, Prequelle's music leans heavily upon 1970s and Eighties influences: some Blue Öyster Cult and Boston here, some good-time hair metal there, and traces of Swedish hit machines ABBA and Roxette throughout. (The album even includes two instrumentals, the proggy, synthesizer-driven "Miasma" and the gorgeous, medieval-tinged "Helvetefonster," that add a marvelous sense of cinematic grandeur to the proceedings.) And while it's perfectly understandable that Ghost's music hasn't resonated with headbangers who prefer their satanic sounds to be angry, aggressive and confrontational, Forge's formidable sense of melody and song construction is what makes Ghost's musical mission so uniquely fiendish. It's easy to imagine a stadium full of fans rocking out to the anthemic "Danse Macabre," or soccer moms wistfully daydreaming in their minivans to the beautiful closer "Life Eternal," all while remaining blissfully unaware of the songs' heretical lyrics.
"Like your Father in Hell/What you've sold you cannot un-sell," sings Forge in "Witch Image"; having already found a market for Ghost's insidious music, he's now doubling down with a brace of songs that are tighter, stronger and more thrillingly tuneful than anything he's done before, without losing any of Ghost's perverse charm. It takes a twisted sort of genius to recognize that the world is in dire need of a great satanic rock album about said world's impending demise, and another layer of demented brilliance to actually deliver it. Tobias Forge, take a bow.