Over the last decade, no new metal band has taken the world by storm quite like Swedish occult rockers Ghost. The group – masterminded by core songwriter and founder Tobias Forge, who is backed by a revolving door of ‘Nameless Ghouls’ – have gone from performing at London’s 500-capacity Underworld to headlining at the O2 Arena.
Ghost’s debut album Opus Eponymous, released in 2010 on cult stoner label Rise Above, won them fans far and wide for its devilishly melodic doom, drawing comparisons to Blue Öyster Cult and The Doors alongside heavier influences like Black Sabbath.
But it was their second album Infestissumam that saw them introduce bigger productions with more complex musical structures and arrangements, a tradition which continued through third and fourth records Meliora and Prequelle to further critical acclaim.
New album Impera was recorded at Stockholm’s Atlantis Studio with Meliora producer Klas Åhlund behind the desk and Opeth virtuoso Fredrik Åkesson hired to track acoustic, rhythm and lead guitars. It’s undoubtedly the sound of Ghost at their most technically ambitious, with some truly breathtaking fretwork at the forefront of some of their catchiest songs to date.
“I guess what makes my work different to your average rock band is that I’m just about an able guitar player,” says Tobias Forge with admirable humility. “I peaked a long time ago, which is why I don’t practise enough anymore! I hit a wall where my fingers didn’t really obey.
“These days I’m more of a songwriter and conceptual creator, to be honest. I can handle a guitar, a bass, drums and also sing. I can make a song sound basically how I want it to myself, with a nice sketch of what a solo should be temperamentally.”
Tobias points to an ’80s hair metal hit, Rock the Night by fellow Swedish band Europe, for an example of a note-perfect solo we can all learn from, praising guitarist John Norum’s sense of melody, build and restraint. And his love for Europe doesn’t end there, citing Norum’s late-’80s replacement Kee Marcello as one of the greatest soloists of all time.
“There’s only one hard bit in that Rock The Night solo, but it’s the perfect spot to shine,” Tobias says. “And, as much as I love John Norum’s playing on tracks like that, I always felt when Kee joined for [1988 album] Out of This World, he sounded truly out of this world! Still to this day, I cannot believe how good he sounds on that record.”
He continues: “I always want solos to feel like their own little composition. For me, the whole ‘come in and noodle’ thing does not work. They need to be thought-out, like complete little journeys within the track.
“That’s the great thing about working with Fredrik Åkesson. He was patient with my explanations, because we all know his ability is absolutely off the charts, and he understood when I was asking him to avoid overplaying, unless there was a point where it called for something outrageous.
“It’s like dramaturgically structuring the solo to start in one place – and I’m paraphrasing what Kirk Hammett said in A Year And A Half In The Life Of Metallica where he noted, ‘You start over here and then you take them to this other place and then you go to a third place that’s even higher!’ I told Fredrik I wanted to have a Kee Marcello approach to these leads. He was graceful enough to take direction.”
In the following track-by-track guide, Tobias reveals the secrets behind his creation of Impera – from a song that started life as a picking exercise, much like Guns N’ Roses’ classic Sweet Child O’ Mine, to second-guessing what Slayer and Missy Elliott might sound like in the studio together...
“It was meant almost like a national theme to this empire. It’s a very bombastic and grandiose start to the album. At some point I want to re-record this song with a full orchestra and choir, almost like a classical version.
“And though it’s a pretty simple melody and chord progression, it sounds really big because of all the harmonies. In the final mix, we actually took the harmonies down compared to the demo – they were even louder there!”
“The funny thing is that I originally wrote the intro as a simple picking thing. At first I was using the open frets and then we reinterpreted it higher up the neck as more of a lead guitar thing, which is why it sounds like it does. It suddenly became so much more difficult and sounded difficult, which therefore made it more metal and cool!
“I think the reaction to the song has been good so far but once people have heard the record and know the song it will make more sense. We’ve done this weird thing before where we start a tour pre-album and open the set with the first track and people are like deer in the headlights! But it’s fine, and a good opener!”
“I can proudly say ABBA are one of my favourite bands of all time. As a songwriter, I’ll always feel like I’m in the absolute shadow of their legacy because it’s hard to find such enormous talent and impeccably fine-tuned songwriting. They’ve been an influence on our songs in general, maybe this one in particular.
“To make things extra nerdy, we recorded this album in Atlantis Studio in Stockholm, which is the old Metronome Studio – where ABBA recorded most of their hits. There’s a video on YouTube of them making Dancing Queen and it’s the exact same outboard gear, mixing console, microphones, marimba and piano we had around us.
“You’d play the piano and it would sound exactly the same as it did on Money, Money, Money, or try the marimba and it would sound like Mamma Mia. As an ABBA fan, being there was so wonderful. And our third album, Meliora, was recorded in Benny Andersson’s own studio, which is where they made the new ABBA record. It’s weird how some of our albums seem to follow their footsteps, but with that album we recorded somewhere before they did!”
4. Call Me Little Sunshine
“I like to use open strings and clashing notes in my riffs. I came up with this one in my head, just like I did with Cirice [from Meliora], and hummed it into my phone. Then I make sense of it using a guitar and try to find the most effective way of playing it.
“This one is kinda special because you have to fret the fifth fret on the lowest string first, and then the next string played open, for the first two notes. I chose to do that instead of hitting the same string twice.
“Basically, I’m trying to create more problems out of something simple in order to find the ultimate riff! I also did something similar with our song Majesty [also from Meliora]. The opening melody came first, which sounded very ABBA – and then I came up with the chords underneath.
“It’s like working backwards, a bit like writing a good detective novel. You never start at the beginning, you start with the finish so that you know that the payoff and end is worth it. You start with the murder and go back from there.”
5. Hunter’s Moon
“This song has a nostalgic, sad and almost romantic kind of feel where it’s unclear whether the narrator is a protagonist or an antagonist. With lyrics like, ‘It’s been a long time coming, I’m coming back for you,’ it’s sort of inviting but also threatening.
“I wanted the guitar and synth leads at the end of each chorus to symbolise this moment of insanity – a bit like the theme music in Kill Bill when Uma Thurman gets angry, it’s this alarming sound that’s a symbol for when she loses it. So I came up with that part to signal this is where madness kicks in, with all those guitars going through old synth pedals plus actual synths as well.”
6. Watcher in the Sky
“There were a few things we added on this record to enhance the drum kit. We’ve never had double bass drum before, so this song was the first we’ve made with a big kit.
“The double bass allowed for that Vinnie Paul [of Pantera] thing where there are triplet-feel things on the kick drum. Nothing against Pantera, but what influenced me there was actually a track called Blood Ritual by [Swiss extreme metal band] Samael, which had that feel I wanted to tap into.”
“If you listen to the vinyl record, Dominion will be the first track on side B. It gives you a sense of break and rest for the ears. I wanted it to feel like a reintroduction for the new side. And even if you are listening to a CD or stream version, a break like this is often needed in order to segue between two contrasting points.”
“When we were working on this song, I kept imagining: ‘What would Slayer and Missy Elliott sound like doing a song together?’ That’s how I wanted it to come out. Sometimes it can be a dreaded term in rock and metal, but this had modern pop qualities I wanted to explore... just to see if it would be doable.
“And I think we succeeded. It’s a very aggressive song with very thrashy guitar playing and very evil lyrics about doing evil things. I always try to write songs I haven’t heard or at least that we don’t have. And this song felt like exactly that.”
9. Darkness at the Heart of My Love
“It’s the ballad of the record. As with most things Ghost, if it sounds pretty, the lyrics will be extra nasty. Honestly, we struggled with the writing a little. The original idea was the chorus, which I tried out in various forms.
“For some time it was sped-up in another track that doesn’t exist anymore. As an experiment, we decided to slow the chorus down and build the song around it. It went through quite a few versions – one was even just an acoustic version, with five or so guitars for this Jeff Lynne wall of acoustics.
“Then it ended up being a metal version, which was harder and heavier. So it really morphed itself along the way, especially compared to tracks like Twenties – if you heard the first sketch I made for that song, it would be pretty close to the end result.
“This one took on new qualities. It got written and rewritten and rewritten again and again, continually getting altered. But it turned out cool! If we ever play it, I’d definitely like to see if we could execute it the acoustic way, because I feel that was also a really interesting version of it.”
“What made the song for me was the fact that there’s this crazy breakdown in what’s otherwise a Sunset Strip kind of thing, which I see as more Van Halen than Ratt.
“It goes from this ’80s homage to a completely different kind of rock. That’s what makes it unique and different, though I’m sure there were a lot of songs that came out of the Sunset Strip in the ’80s about the same subject!
“It felt like a good way of paying tribute while also doing something different, almost Tarantino-ing old things into something new.”
11. Bite of Passage
“This piece ties into the album closer, which was actually written on piano. I’ve done that before on tracks like Deus In Absentia. I always try to find a good closing scene, I guess.”
12. Respite on the Spitalfields
“I find writing on the piano can make a song end up sounding a certain way. This was definitely one of my favourites while making this record. I feel like it’s the most interesting song.
“My favourite part of the whole record is actually the solo after the first chorus, where we go up half a step. It’s the best bit and only 25 seconds long!
“As much as there’s a victorious feeling when you squeeze in a three-minute banger at the end, it’s nice to have a seven-minute freeform track that doesn’t take any commercial appeal into consideration. It lends to a certain freedom, which is why it came out that way, and eventually closes with the same theme from the opening track.”
- Impera is out now via Loma Vista.