This is a very unusual album review, and I’m willing to bet it is the only review of it’s kind. I will be exploring Swedish rock/metal band Ghost’s new album Prequelle visually through my synaesthesia. I want to show you the detail in this album so you can listen as you have never listened before.
Who are Ghost?
They are a Swedish eight-piece rock/metal band whose schtick on first impressions appears gimmicky, wearing masks and singing songs about the Devil. However, they successfully pull off a kind of rock/metal ABBA thing and write really, really, catchy songs. Their new album Prequelle is mostly about the Black Death in the 13th Century but is entirely doused in 1980’s rock feel, right down to a sax solo. Knowing and, not a little arch this is a band that takes you with them when they make a joke. Seriously good music played by a band that doesn’t take themselves too seriously and understand how to entertain. Humm, I wonder who that sounds like? The levels of darkness and OTT melodrama balanced with a well-developed sense of humour is reminiscent of Muse. Given that the current political climate feels very 1980s, late Cold War, conservative and retrograde, the themes are apt and transferable. Rats opens, “In times of turmoil, in times like these…” well quite.
Let’s get down to the colourful stuff. Album opener Ashes, a bit classical and a bit nursery rhyme and a spooky scene setter. The drawing is sparse and reflects the surprise of the diagonal yellow flashes as the guitars come in halfway into the song, the blue branching figure is the synth, and the white stars are the bright little bells.
The next song Rats is a contrast, full on unison guitars and mounting melodramatic crescendo to make this an absolute stormer of a single and a dense synaesthetic picture. Yes, it is about the plague…. “they mostly come at night…mostly…” Let’s start with the bass, the sound of the bass changes over the album, but I’ll come to that later. It is in full imperial purple here, rounded smooth and central. The guitars are interesting and have two incarnations in this image. The acid yellow is the lead guitar a sound that cuts through the mix intermittently (0:50). The orange wave in the centre are the guitars in unison playing a classic kind of “chugging” rhythm often used in metal and rock as a textural backdrop. It has a colour complexity that is both metallic and fruity with sticky marmalade orange depths. The red lines at the side are the synths (0:40) as is the funny little blue satellite dish thingy, sometimes these things are a little flourish peculiar to the player and just appear, and a similar shape reappears in a later drawing. The musical motifs in an album will be reflected in the visuals as they reappear when they are played again later. Unusually this image includes vocals, the red curls at the bottom have an aura of distortion as the singer leans into and roughens up the word “rats” in the chorus.
Ghost’s unison guitars reappear in this picture of Faith. Like shimmering wings of some sort of flying abstract beast the guitars and bass come together in the centre of this image. The imperial purple ring of bass has changed to a vertical, and the central column of metallic marmalade unison guitars from the previous picture has become more complex and broader in my field of synaesthetic vision. The orange shape in the top right is the mesmerising sound of the drummer hitting a cymbal bell at around 0:48. An excellent example of when a tiny sound will become dominant, quite beautiful and take up more space in the drawing than it ever does in a song. My attention is selective when it comes to listening, and these drawings show little snippets of sound combined into a composite image.
See The Light
In See The Light the bass is back in a central imperial purple solid/liquid central state. The white angular shapes are the higher nasal edges of the singing; the yellow diagonal flashes are the cymbal crashes, you will notice that high notes in the guitars and cymbals have light colours and the bass has dark colours. My synaesthesia has it’s own obvious logic when it comes to colours and pitch; however, it is precise about the shade or tone of the colour they are often very translucent colours. It is frustrating not to have the exact colour in your pencil case! The pink and purple horseshoe shapes and lines are the synths at 4:43.
Dance Macabre is a top song and a big ’80s rock number. A song with a four on the floor rhythm that shows the veil between Disco and Metal is thinner than you might think. (Mix The Trammps Disco Inferno with a liberal helping of Meatloaf’s Bat out of Hell and a sprinkle of pretty much anything by Bon Jovi). Like Muse’s single Thought Contagion (another 2018 song full of 1980s feel) it also owes much to Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
This is the place where the bass changes its character, and it has lost its imperial purple amorphous shape. It now looks like the feather of an exotic bird shimmering orange and deep, deep black. I think this might be because it is being played with a pick rather than fingers. The only other player who’s bass goes into black and orange is Simon Gallup of the Cure, and he definitely plays with a pick. His sound is more metallic than the deep orange and black feather of the Nameless Ghoul of the Bass in this song.
Those strange blue satellite dishes are back, the synths are prominent in this song, and both the pinky curls and the blue dishes are part of the keyboard part. The yellow curls? Those are the cleaner guitar sound and the big blue cross? That’s the vocals. They are doubled or chorused and have some sort of echo effect on them which is what my synaesthesia picks up in the way the shape is positioned and mirrored. If I can understand the words of a song it somehow blocks what I see of a voice, it’s as if I can’t see around the words and can only see the periphery of the effects used or the timbre of the voice.
Pro Memoria contains the lyric “…don’t you forget about dying, don’t you forget about your friend Death, don’t you forget that you will die too.” Eeek! Thanks, guys, nothing like a direct lyrical approach with an ear-worm ready hook on a chord progression that reminds me of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio theme tune. You might find yourself singing this while doing the washing up, I did!
This is a straightforward image, and I have taken only two sounds from the intro to this song. First, the cymbals ripple and spread out from the centre in a halo of reds and yellows and second, the string effects on the synth. I am reasonably sure this is a keyboard effect rather than actual cellos as cellos look very different to the biscuit-y textured ginger brown tubes I’ve drawn here.
Helvetesfonster According to Google this is Swedish for Helvetesfonster, any Swedes out there who know where this monster comes from, a made-up word, a pun? Whatever it is the music is telling me it is seductive and hiding in the dark waiting for me…probably under my bed. Musically it revisits themes from Pro Memoria and includes, flute, music hall piano, prog-rock synths and Ghost’s signature wistful, folky unison acoustic guitars.
Again my drawing only depicts a very tiny proportion of the song and focuses on the opening of this long instrumental piece. The dominant sound is the wistful and spooky flute which twists and drifts in the centre of my plane of vision as a blue, sweeping octopus-like shape. The piano is also dominant and ripples in and out at the side of my view in russets and reds with rounded angles, there are little backwards cymbals in white at the bottom. I have tried to capture the essence of the movement in this drawing and to emphasise the three-dimensionality of the way a sound feels like a physical shape to me.
Spending time with one album as the product of a band’s discreet thought process is a rare pleasure to enjoy despite the way streaming encourages us to listen to all the songs all the time dotting about in no particular order. In sharing the visual themes in my drawings that mirror the musical ideas in this album, I hope I have opened your ears and eyes to something you might not have listened for. Those details such as the way the bass changes character, the different ways the guitars work together or finding those tiny little sounds that you might otherwise miss in a sonically dense piece of work.
What is it about Ghost that makes them so good? I’ve entirely fallen in love with their funny kind of music. Perhaps its the commitment to their characters as Cardinal Copia and the Nameless Ghouls. Maybe their humour in taking the outrage of the righteous finger that has long been pointed at many kinds of music from jazz to metal accusing it of being “devil music” and saying yes, yes it is all about the devil, you have a problem with that? This is a musically diverse album that pulls its inspiration from a myriad of sources and builds a sonic church of rich sounds. Synaesthetically it is rich, full of strange shapes, textures and fluid jewel-like colours with complexity like the brilliant gleam of a peacock feather. This is an album full of catchy, beautifully constructed songs. Don’t let the Velazquez/Bacon/Bruegel darkness of the album cover deceive you this is an album full of joyful, colourful music.