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In the almost eight years since their debut, "Opus Eponymous," Swedish rockers Ghost have diligently done the hard work of going out and earning their fans one by one on the road, and it's paid off. They've become one of the biggest hard-edged bands around. Now, with their fourth album, "Prequelle," they're shooting for the moon that is pop success.

It all seemed unlikely, back in the early days of the band, when they were just a simple Satanic rock group getting their legs under them. The gimmick was a great one, right off the bat: here was a band that featured a skull-faced Pope (Papa Emeritus) and a group of robed Nameless Ghouls that looked like they should sound like the most unlistenable death-metal garbage, but they instead got compared to Blue Oyster Cult, and their songs were sung by the evil Pope in a clean, inviting voice that dripped with sugary melody. It was a tweak, an angle on the old masked-band formula. Instead of being the heaviest of the heavies, Ghost didn't even try. They covered Depeche Mode and wrote bouncy pop songs alongside their riffier, more traditional doomy numbers. They were unique.

This time around, things have changed. There's been a lawsuit in which former members have exposed Papa Emeritus as the musician Tobias Forge, ruining the well-crafted veil of anonymous mystery that the group had cultivated. And, perhaps in some way responding to this, Forge has decided to do away with his Papa character (who had appeared in a different incarnation with each album) to play a new one called "Cardinal Copia," who in the video for "Rats" (the first single off "Prequelle") was depicted dancing like Fred Astaire and doing spin kicks.

It was baffling. It was also pretty awesome. No matter your opinion of Ghost, you can't deny Forge is willing to take risks that constantly put him into awkward positions. Even the idea to start a band that features openly Satanic lyrics and an image that is basically that of an inverted Catholic church is not one that anyone would have, on paper, thought wise. Yet, it was done with such a sense of fun and with tongue firmly in cheek that it just seemed like a well-made horror movie with a killer soundtrack. Even when their second album stumbled and got too surfy and poppy at times, it still worked.

And now, "Prequelle," the point where it stopped working - at least temporarily. Forget the image - the truth is, Ghost would've been nothing without Forge's knack for knotty riffs and sweet, sweet melodies. And those are still present, but some key mistakes have been made.

It all starts off well. Intro "Ashes" runs into "Rats" and "Faith," and, while it's clear the production is buffed to a shine, the riffs are still there, and so are the hooks. "Faith" is, in fact, one of Ghost's more gnarly tunes. But then the album takes a quick dive. When the chorus of "See the Light" hits, it sounds for all the world like Linkin Park, and that's profoundly depressing. It's easily the worst Ghost song because it's trying to hang with insipid radio-metal bands, most of whom are beyond terrible.

Weirdly, then there's a five-minute prog-rock instrumental with a saxophone solo that comes off like the E Street Band jamming with ELP. It's preposterous, although it's not offensive like "See the Light." Later, second instrumental "Helvetesfonster" eats up almost six minutes of the record's runtime, none of it necessary.

Ballads "Pro Memoria" and "Life Eternal" are bloated and overproduced. Clanking piano is everywhere. Sure, there are decent guitar breaks, and "Pro Memoria" at least name-checks Lucifer and talks about death a lot, but it still sounds like '80s power-ballad junk.

"Dance Macabre" is so disco-metal it should be terrible, but the song is propulsive and supremely earworm-y, at least. "Witch Image" is probably the record's third-heaviest song, but it still sounds like The Scorpions circa "Savage Amusement." This ain't great.

The decision to tone down the rock on "Prequelle" and go for a sound that is so overproduced that it invites comparisons to Bon Jovi and Def Leppard in the hunt for commercial success is a mistake. It's a gutsy mistake, though, and the album isn't straight-up bad. It's just disappointing, and it's the band's worst effort. Good news is, it does set the stage nicely for Cardinal Copia to become Papa Emeritus IV and for Ghost's fifth album to be a sort of bared-fangs comeback. Here's hoping we get that instead of more of this.

 

Artist: Ghost

Album: "Prequelle"

Produced by: Tom Dalgety

Website: www.ghost-official.com

Personnel: Cardinal Copia (vocals), Papa Nihil (saxophone), A Group of Nameless Ghouls (other instruments), numerous guests in various capacities

Click here to listen to "Rats."