Ghost is by far the most exciting metal band in the world right now, is what I thought in the fall of 2015 when the band had just released their immediate smash-hit record “Meliora”. Following year’s “Popestar”-ep and especially the song “Square Hammer” catapulted the band to arena class in parts of Europe, the status being cemented on both sides of the Atlantic with 2018’s “Prequelle”. For yours truly, that album didn’t quite meet the expectations set by “Meliora”, and I was mentally done with the record soon after its release to begin waiting what Tobias Forge might pull out of his sleeve next time around. Well, that “next time” is upon us now, so sit tight as I walk you through the record that Forge himself has compared to Metallica’s self-titled opus in terms of its importance to his band’s career.
“Imperium” serves as a compact introduction to the album. The instrumental piece opens with a mellow acoustic guitar picking that soon gives way to a pompous snare beat and billowing lead guitar as grandiose as the track’s title itself. As the drums and bass kick in it becomes evident that the album’s production is squarely on point, the drum fills flowing with a sound as lush as it is massive, and the bass guitar as delectably distinguishable as always on a Ghost record. “We’re building our empire from the ashes of an old”, announces Forge on “Kaisarion”, throwing the listener straight into the meat of the record and its subject matter. “Kaisarion” is easily the most triumphant opening track in the band’s history, with the melodies, lyricism and instrumentation so flawless one gets the urge to replay the song before it’s even finished.
“Spillways” begins with a very familiar sounding piano intro that soon segues into Forge’s mellifluous, upbeat vocals. At just over three minutes, the song represents Ghost’s pop sensibilities at their most unabashed. That ever growing population of metal purists who for years have loved to hate Ghost will have a field day with this song, if not most of this record, for “Spillways” is what it sounds like when the most exciting metal band of our time takes a decisive leap away from metal towards distorted arena pop.
Following the two singles released ahead of the album comes “Watcher in the Sky” in which Forge manages to use his ambiguous yet witty lyrics to simultaneously jab at flat earthers, religious fanatics as well as even some of the ways in which science has made the world smaller. The verses’ impeccable rhythms and the choir-laden c-part offer plenty compensation for the lackluster chorus. “Twenties” is the sore thumb on this album that sticks out for better and worse. A commendable experimentation demonstrating Forge’s willingness to test himself as much as his audience, the song nevertheless sails over my head and not least because of the lyrics break the stylishly timeless form I’ve long appreciated about this band.
“Darkness at the Heart of My Love” is a subdued ballad relying on tender acoustic guitars and Forge’s wispy vocals. Even though the chorus temporarily lifts the song’s atmosphere from the mire it trudges in, I would call this one of the weaker tracks on the album for its lack of ideas to justify the five-minute runtime. “Griftwood” is this album’s “Witch Image”; a final pop-delight before the mournful farewell in the form of “Respite on the Spitalfields”. The latter is a soulful if not a bit meandering send-off for the album. “We will break away together, nothing ever lasts forever”, croons Forge, communicating similar sentiments as the previous album’s closing tune.
One common wisdom regarding the longevity of music is that the more spins it takes for an album to reveal its secrets, the more it has potential to stand the test of time and vice versa; an immediately digested album is done and gone from memory equally soon. This axiom doesn’t quite hold up to scrutiny as I look back on the last album that floored me at hello, which was “Meliora”, still the Ghost album to trump them all in my book. To state it plainly, “Impera” did not leave me with an overtly positive first impression. I would not go so far as to say that Tobias Forge has finally revealed himself as the emperor without clothes, but it is a touch amusing detail that the only tracks on this album credited as solely his work are the intro and “Bite of Passage”, a redundant 30-second guitar-plucking. “Impera” is a solid addition to Ghost’s discography, but it took a few listens too many for me to begrudgingly reach that conclusion.