Ghost at Wembley Arena

Support: All Them Witches| Tribulation
November 22, 2019 at Wembley Arena
Promoter: Live Nation

It is 6.30 pm, I’m in a giant, soulless arena and I haven’t had my dinner, but Sweden’s Tribulation are doing their best to transport me to a Transylvanian castle at midnight. It’s a big ask, but they’ll have a bloody good go.

They begin with ‘Nightbound’ off their latest album, Down Below, and waste no time in trying to impress the crowd, which at this stage is gradually piling in. Confined to a narrow strip of the stage they still give a hell of a show. In front of their spookily lit stage set and standing atop green lighting, the guitarists prance and pose whilst bassist/vocalist Johannes Andersson growls commandingly from the central jutting walkway of the stage.

This being Wembley, the fantastically elegant riff to ‘Melancholia’ struggles to impose itself, but nevertheless thousands of curious souls are, by now, won over enough to respond to bands gestures of encouragement and start to loosen up.

Next number ‘The World’ has a post-punk almost funky rhythm which, strangely, works incredibly well with Andersson’s death metal vocals! In general of course, Tribulation are a good fit for Ghost, being a band playing with genres, evolving their sound all the time, whilst still being totally “meta”‘ and looking pretty terrifying whilst they do it.

A magnificently thunderous ‘Strange Gateways Beckons’ ends proceedings. Tribulation, despite their appearance and rather tricksy, unusual blend of progressive, gothic and death metal have put on an impressive charm offensive. They really whipped up the crowd. Job done!

It’s interesting that the PA plays trip hop before All Them Witches appear, as if trying to mellow people out in preparation for the bands more stoner, desert blues vibe. ATW are certainly an odder fit for this tour, being unprepossessing Southern gentleman who look like they like to go surfing and camping at the beach, rather than sacrificing nuns. Even their skull logo is tie-dye. Having said that they start fuzzy and feisty on ‘Funeral For a Great Drunken Bird’ but their sounds seems to echo and fall a little flat in a way that Tribulation’s didn’t. That’s probably because the space between the notes in their bluesy sound is less suited to a draughty aircraft hanger of a venue, whereas Tribulation just blasted and overpowered.

‘3-5-7’ gets heads nodding with it’s psych-doom rituals and in fact when they keep it heavy and hypnoti.c as on the always excellent ‘Diamond’, then I stop being critical and get my groove on. The playlist is much changed from when I last caught the band at Desertfest, but what remains is the band’s incredible tight-but-loose playing. The highlights of the set are actually wicked extended Hendrix-esque soloing from Ben McLeod, and drummer Robby Staebler’s showcase: his kit lit from all angles, he gives a powerful yet deft masterclass in classic hard rock drumming, Bonzo-style. And this from a man who doesn’t like drum solos!

When the curtains drop to reveal Ghost‘s  glistening white stage set and impressive ranks of nameless ghouls I am immediately taken back to the last time I saw them play, which was at Koko  circa the ‘Meliora’ album. That show was one of the greatest metal shows I have witnessed in recent years. The atmosphere! The tunes! Incredible from start to finish,  it was obvious to all in the room that a) we were lucky to have been there and b) that Ghost were on the brink of becoming huge. Well, we are there now. As I wandered in to the SSE Arena tonight the only thing more striking than the vast cornucopia of pricey Ghost merch available was the huge snaking queues of people waiting to buy it. I haven’t visited this venue in a long time, but in my youth I would come here to see stars like Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, The Cure and Ozzy Osbourne, acts that your mum knew, that you had seen on Top of The Pops and that Radio 1 would have to play because they were in the charts. Ghost have none of that, they are truly an underground sensation – a band of the people, weird people maybe, but people nonetheless.

The first tune proper is ‘Rats’, and at this point I have to admit that I’m not a fan of Prequelle. It has never struck a chord with me and is their first album I haven’t purchased. Clearly I am in a minority, based on sales, reviews and the rabid fan reaction tonight! Luckily, with this band there is no shortage of great songs and we do get to hear plenty. . . although not as many as I’d like.

Now, here’s one of their very best, ‘Absolution’ –  annoyingly it is marred by shitty feedback at the start, although it is soon remedied and for the rest of the night the sound is pretty decent. There are bigger issues though, and after a fine, lilting, ‘Mary On The Cross’, from their recent Seven inches of Satanic Panic EP, it all goes a bit Pink-Floyd-meets-panto, with the two lead guitarists trading big, twangy solos then gesturing to the crowd for support. Now, while it is nice for the nameless ones to get time to shine and get to interact with the crowd, it feels early and foolish to not keep banging out the tunes, as big as they are. And no, I don’t want to hear a wonky. metal rendition of The EastEnders tune FFS!  Thank Beezlebub then, for a stage lit blood red and the ominous riffery that leads to goth power-ballad ‘Cirice’, which is still darkly delicious.

We get some more theatrics before one of Prequlle’s proggy instrumentals and Tobias Forge/Cardinal Copia buggers off for yet another costume change – the man is becoming a Satanic Cher! Again, I seem to be slightly out of step with the zeitgeist as the crowd adore the Cardinal Copia character. It is remarkable Forge has managed to create such a rapport with his fanbase using only a rubber mask, a fake, Italian purr, and some theatrical gestures.

There are moments when Ghost remind you what a brilliantly odd metal band they are, like on the crescendo that brings ‘Zombie Queen’ to an end. However, thus far there is too much “show” about the whole affair for you ever to get swept away in an wave of riffs and sweat. Luckily, the second-half of the show is less sporadic; ‘Ritual’ and ‘Satan Prayer’ from their debut, seem songs from a different age, by a stranger, less palatable version of Ghost, and are played straight and dark. It’s a marvellous sight too, to see a crowd of this size chant “Hail Satan” whilst pumping their fists to a triumphant ‘Year Zero’. The band are on a roll finally and we get a spectacular ‘He Is’ and a galloping, Metallica-esque ‘Mummy Dust’.

Unfortunately I have to take my leave at this point, but I hear they no longer finish with ‘Monstrance Clock’ – a closing staple for some time now, it is replaced by ‘Square Hammer’ – a more straight ahead, commercial ‘hit’. I guess it figures. I do miss the more sinister Mk1 and 2 iterations of Ghost, but they are not my band: they are the people’s band, and their number grows ever larger!

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