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Ghost – “Square Hammer”

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This weekend I finished up reading David Masciotra’s 33 ⅓ on Metallica’s Black Album, inspired by the album’s 25th anniversary. Masciotra emphasizes how much the band were focused on decluttering their sound in order to emulate the “soul groove” (Kirk Hammett’s words, not mine) of bands like AC/DC, Aerosmith and Stevie Ray Vaughn. The book presents this as a creative choice, but we all know that it also ended up being an extremely prudent financial one. By streamlining Metallica were able to capitalize on their already substantial fan base and muscle their way into true mainstream success. Creative motivations aside it was clear that Metallica were aware of the sound of rock radio (according to the book Hetfield brought Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” to Bob Rock for an example of his ideal vocal sound for “Nothing Else Matters”) and found a space where their music could compete with the pop music of the period. It’s hard to imagine any modern heavy metal band today “going for it” in such a naked way, or even having the chops and resources to pull it off.

Ghost don’t seem to think it’s so unlikely. The band have long been on the pop leaning side of the metal, writing hooky, vocal centric songs that don’t shy away from obvious choruses. This has worked out pretty well for them so far, they’re Grammy winners after all, but their actual songwriting has never felt particularly sharp. Even though they’ve always aimed for catchy and memorable melodies, they’ve been hamstrung by their reliance on plodding tempos and rambling metal song structures. Nothing wrong with rambling metal structures, but that form always seemed to be at cross purposes with Ghost’s actual content, which are generally much more sugary and radio-ready. Point being, if you’re going to write pop songs, get over yourself and WRITE A POP SONG.

And with “Square Hammer” Ghost have done just that. The song is a lean 3 minutes, and every moment of the song seems designed to be equally catchy. The introductory organ hook is quick enough to dart in and out of the vocal melody during the verse, which in turn leaves just enough room for subtle bell effects, electric piano and clean guitars counter melodies. That might sound like a lot on the page, but on wax it means that each moment of the song has a clear and identifiable melody that each build toward the best chorus that Ghost have ever written. Much like Metallica on The Black Album, Ghost’s sound has been decluttered and streamlined. Whether or not this leads to the same financial windfall is immaterial, it’s already made their music significantly better.

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