No matter how alienating a heavy metal band’s music might be, no matter how elaborate their stage set-up, and no matter how stubbornly in-character they remain, most are still held to the basic assumption that they are ordinary humans. GWAR are sweaty, stinky men underneath their massive latex suits; Watain are supremely vulnerable under their makeup and offal, their blood and filth-smeared skin extra susceptible to impetigo. It’s unusual that a band is able to maintain the elaborate fiction or narrative they build around themselves so completely that, for however brief a moment, the audience can suspend their disbelief and accept that they are watching something supernatural. With vastly different techniques, both bands who performed at the Opera House on Monday night convinced their listeners they were more than talented flesh.
Openers and occult rock sorcerers Ides of Gemini left no doubt in my mind that I was watching a show performed by wizards. Their sound walks a fine line between the ethereal and the palpable, as though existing in a liminal state or moving between words, making their live show seem more an act of summoning than a simple performance. The looping structures of their doom-inspired songs hung heavy in the air, rising slowly, thick as ectoplasm. Kelly Johnston’s precise drumming has an almost martial quality to it, which always seemed to hover on the verge of breaking the spell with it’s solidity and sharpness; for a while she played with padding wrapped around her drumsticks to muffle the beat and blend into atmosphere more fully. J. Bennet is a dizzyingly talented guitar player as well as an imposing figure, his impossibly tall and lean body swaying as though channelling energy. Bassist and vocalist Sera Timms took on the role of medium, her voice at once soothing and deeply unsettling, familiar and buttery and somehow broken. Wearing a long, flowing dress that seemed to drape with the same weight as her dark hair, she was the most still and reserved figure on stage but still the natural focal point. When the set ended with a moving, morbid rendition of “Constantinople,” there was almost a sigh of relief as whatever force they had called up was released and allowed to depart.
Swedish demons Ghost (they have been forced to legally change their name to Ghost B.C. In the U.S. but have made it clear that as far as they are concerned, their name is Ghost and the B.C. is silent) do not refer to their performances as shows, but rather as rituals. This ritual began before a single note was struck, as smoke and fragrant incense created a swirling, ominous haze on stage, while backdrops meant to mimic massive panes of stained glass turned the Opera House into an unholy cathedral. It was the Nameless Ghouls, who perform all of the instruments, who took the stage first, clad head to toe in black vestments, their faces obscured by metallic plague doctor masks. After a throbbing, insistent introduction, vocalist and leader of the ritual Papa Emeritus II, wearing the inverted robes of a cardinal and with his face painted to mimic a skull, strode onto the stage with absolute authority and held the audience in thrall for the duration of the set.
Ghost have been criticized for their theatricality, for being a lot of sound and fury without the substance, but now that they have material from two full-length releases, 2010’s Opus Eponymous and this year’s Infestissumam, their setlists are more lush and varied while their performances are even more refined and tight. Papa Emeritus II’s voice was smooth and sensual, reminding you with every soaring note that the devil is a charming bastard. Whether picking up the mic stand with a swooping ecstasy of sweeping a lover into his arms, directing the musicians around him with powerful, black-gloved hands, or wielding a dildo like a conductor’s baton, the performance was undeniably charged with a sensuous, sexual energy.
Drawing from both Opus Eponymous and Infestissumam, their set was build around the songs that are the most compelling, even cheerful, dovetailing with the overtly satanic lyrics. Their rendition of “Prime Mover” was bombastic and intense, while “Secular Haze” became even more driven and anthemic played live. The set proper ended with the up-beat, surf-rock influenced “Ritual,” whose fist-pumping rhythm inspired once audience member to raise his crutches over his head instead of his hands. But it was the encore of the vast and doomy “Monstrance Clock” that was perhaps the most transcendent moment of the weird, otherworldly night. As Papa Emeritus II led the crowd in a sing-a-long of the chorus, repeating, “come together/together as one/ come together/ for Lucifer’s son,” it was easy to imagine that the combined energy of everyone’s voices was indeed pulling something over from another plane.
For those willing to walk into this performance and abandon themselves to it entirely, Ghost and Idea of Gemini offered the crowd a taste of magic.
Natalie Zina Walschots is a poet and music writer based in Toronto, Ontario. Her second book of poetry, DOOM: Love Poems for Supervillains, was published by Insomniac Press this spring. You can follow her on Twitter at @NatalieZed.