When the dates were announced for this tour by Ghost, I was persuaded to check them out by a friend (with broadly similar tastes to my own) who thought they were excellent and put on a great live show. Knowing little of their material I took him at his word and booked a ticket, although it was for Birmingham rather than the closest show to me (yes, the dreaded Manchester Apollo yet again). Even if I’d wanted to go to Manchester, the date (31st March) was out since I was already booked up that night and besides, there were at least two other gigs – in the same city – on the same night that a rock fan like me would definitely have been interested in. I will cover what I call ‘Same Night Syndrome’ in a future post as it is an irritation, but you’d think that the potential audience for any of those shows would be hit given that they’re all aimed at the rock crowd, albeit different aspects of what we call rock.
Leaving that aside, I was actually delayed setting out for Birmingham on Saturday and so by the time I got there, the venue was packed. I’ve been to this place several times but only once before in the main hall (to the best of my recollection) and then that was in the upstairs balcony. In future I may do that again since although this hall looks big, it isn’t the easiest place to get any sort of viewpoint from. The back of the hall is hopeless, there are two bars sited at the back, plus a merch stand, meaning a lot of milling around and plenty of people clutching pints trying to manoeuvre their way through the throng. You can’t see in any case from here, since the mix desk has a curtain in the way. If you head over to the right hand side and try to find your way in down the side, forget it. There’s another bar sited there, with more of the same sort of milling about. Your only way is back towards the left hand side, over there it is relatively roomy but your view is badly obscured by a pillar and also by the balcony as you’re sited directly under it.
I was trying to find something approaching a good spot during the support act’s set; US duo Zombi weren’t grabbing my attention particularly as they worked their way through what sounded like an extended keyboard solo from a prog rock band. Except that wasn’t a solo spot, that was the act! The playing was fine but it did drag, and an actual song or two wouldn’t have gone amiss. I was watching from under the balcony, house left, while trying to scope out a possible spot on the floor. No chance of that, even when this duo finished and the crowd started to disperse – it soon filled, and I managed to get about five metres into the main floor before it solidified.
Resigning myself to a poor spot then, I waited for the main act. At about 9pm three crew members appeared, all in uniform and making a big deal of removing the covers from the drum kit and keyboard stands. They even bowed to one another as they entered the stage! Not to be outdone, the drum tech appeared and also bowed to the crowd before taking to the kit. For all we know, of course, these could be Ghost band members but we’d never know since they’re all masked! The drum tech did a short test of the kit before making a similarly grand exit. Following that, a lengthy passage of Gregorian chants boomed through the PA before the lights finally dimmed. Another lengthy intro ensued, before cheers heralded the arrival of the band – all dressed in matching uniforms, and all with masks that completely covered their faces so they appeared identical. These are the ‘Nameless Ghouls’; two guitarists, a drummer, a keyboardist and a bassist (a female whose identity IS known, but I shan’t spoil it for you here). The Ghouls are identified only by alchemical symbols, and it was keyboardist ‘Air’ and lead guitar player ‘Fire’ who launched into opening number ‘Square Hammer’, to an excited crowd. The stage was bathed in ‘evil’ red light, there was plenty of smoke and effects as mainman Papa Emeritus III made his entrance, appearing suddenly in a puff of smoke to a huge roar from the crowd. I was surprised that they’d open with such a popular song, when it would have made a great set closer but it demonstrated a lot of confidence in my view. Papa Emeritus III was in his trademark mask, with robe and headgear making him look like a satanic pope. With the crowd already up from this spectacular opener, bassist ‘Water’ pounded out the intro to ‘From The Pinnacle To The Pit’ – the bass to this one made me think immediately of Alice In Chains’s 1992 hit ‘Would’.
A lot about this show was familiar; the anonymous band thing has been done many times before, and Papa Emeritus III himself has clearly taken visual cues from King Diamond. However their songs are actually quite accessible, with clean vocal rather than the growls so often heard from ‘black metal’ bands, and some impressive, nimble-fingered playing from guitarists ‘Fire’ and ‘Aether’. They may have adopted a ‘Satanic’ theme and perhaps overdo it to the point of sending the whole thing up (even using a ‘Baphomet’ stage backdrop), but they have a knack for the anthemic singalong and the frontman himself proved to be quite the showman. Were a certain A. Cooper watching, he’d no doubt approve of the theatrics (if not the imagery) from these Swedes. Towards the end, when other frontmen would announce each member of the band to the crowd so that they could applaud each in turn, Papa Emeritus III achieved the same thing merely by walking up to the relevant musician, and with a mere gesture got the crowd to cheer each performer. One thing that was definitely not ‘evil’ was the tickertape shower as they closed the main set with ‘Ritual’. To paraphrase Ozzy: ‘What’s so evil about tickertape!’ Despite the elaborate costumes then, this was basically a rock spectacular that perhaps belongs in an arena rather than a 3000-capacity hall.
In conclusion, the show was nothing I hadn’t experienced many times before, but it was nonetheless entertaining. Papa Emeritus reinvents himself with each album and tour cycle and so when they come around again, it will doubtless be Papa Emeritus IV fronting the act with a whole new look. (Every incarnation of Papa Emeritus is performed by the same man, and his identity has also been outed for anyone curious enough to want to know just who this guy in the robe and mask is, speaking in a strong Scandinavian accent).
Would I see this act again? More than likely, yes – but I’ll get a seat further back next time, there’s little point in getting up close and personal with a group who operate anonymously and so you’re better off just enjoying the show as a spectacle from a more distant viewpoint.