Occult rock: the path of darkness

When occult rock rose from the darkness 40 years ago, it seemed truly eerie. Maybe its power has been diluted, but new purveyors such as Ghost can still thrill and chill

'When you see TV footage of the 1960s or early 70s, going to a meeting of a coven was almost like going to a book club or a knitting class because it was that commonplace," suggests Lee Dorrian. He's the frontman of doom metal legends Cathedral, and someone who also has an interest in going to a coven meeting being commonplace – he founded Rise Above Records, a label with long-standing ties with the occult rock movement. "People didn't have the internet or computer games, and young kids were reading Tolkien and Dennis Wheatley books and watching Hammer horror films. It was just in the air, I suppose."

It was a time when the occult cropped up in rock with surprising frequency. Students of arcane sonic mischief fondly recall such albums as US acid-rockers Coven's 1969 debut Witchcraft Destroys Minds & Reaps Souls, Italian crew Jacula's In Cauda Semper Stat Venenum (also 1969) and British acid-folk mob Comus's First Utterance (1971), all of which sought to evoke a sense of spectral terror and satanic subversion, setting alarm bells ringing in the offices of those self-ordained protectors of western morality. The Rolling Stones toying with occult ideas on Their Satanic Majesties Request may have caused mild alarm in the mainstream, but true occult rock aspired to reach beyond superficial imagery to oil the hinges of hell's gates, bringing a bona fide whiff of danger to the fledgling heavy rock world, and informing its iconography and subject matter for 40 years to come.

True occult rock – as opposed to the flirtations of bands who brandish pentagrams while selling out arenas – is just a minor subculture. And like any other minor subculture, of course, it has existed primarily for those willing to scratch the surface and dig a little deeper.

"Black Widow were the obvious band that everyone knew about, but their interest in the occult only lasted for one album," says Dorrian, referring to the Leicester band whose debut, Sacrifice, reached No 32 in 1970, and who appeared at that year's Isle of Wight festival. "But there were tonnes of others, like Zior. Zior's singer Keith Bonsor was apparently a serial occultist from round Colchester way, and there was a story that he was executed at a black mass and has never been seen since. I don't know if that's true. People always mention Coven, too, and Italian bands like Jacula and Antonius Rex took the occultism thing more seriously. Even Mick Ronson, one of his solo singles has a B-side called Powers of Darkness, and that's a mega occult rock track."

Black Widow reunited in 2007 after a 34-year hiatus and are touting a new studio album, the gleefully preposterous Sleeping with Demons. They remain very much the godfathers of occult rock, and their anthem Come to the Sabbat is the only song from that first era that had any discernible impact on the rock mainstream. Their supremely cheerful frontman Clive Jones is happy to admit to his own spiritualist beliefs and fascination with witchcraft, but also concedes that Black Widow abandoned the path of darkness fairly quickly after their 1970 debut seemed to cast its own shadow of negativity over their ambitions.

"After Sacrifice we had to change direction and I didn't want to do that, but we'd had lots of bad luck," he recalls. "We were banned by the BBC and they wouldn't play the records. We were going to tour in America but Charles Manson did what they called his 'black magic murders' and suddenly we weren't allowed in. Our management looked after Black Sabbath at the time, too, and sent them in our place. Now we're back to the black magic, but this time we wanted to show that black magic can be fun. It's not all worshipping the devil and sacrificing sheep."

In truth, occult rock never truly died, but it has been becoming a more visible force in recent years. A new wave of bands who share many of the original occult bands' musical and philosophical characteristics – spearheaded by Ghost, from Sweden, and the Devil's Blood, from Holland – have begun to lure in a new generation of fans, predominantly from the metal scene. Their names alone – Ancient VVisdom, Hexvessel, Blood Ceremony, Devil – point to a focused step back to the age of Wheatley and Hammer. Metal, of course, has been waist-deep in satanism and themes of supernatural horror for decades, from the almost unintentional eeriness of Black Sabbath through to the hellish aggression of Slayer, on to Norway's church-burning black metal cult of the early 90s. What these new bands seem to offer, however, is a more rounded rejection of the modern age, with music that eschews technological excess in favour of warm, analogue tones and unfettered psychedelia.

Despite not exhibiting any real desire to stray from the comfort of metal's grubby underground, Ghost have begun to develop a formidable reputation and have become, to the dismay of their diehard admirers, something of a "buzz band" in mainstream rock circles. It certainly helps that the Swedes have been very publicly endorsed by such significant figures as Metallica frontman James Hetfield and former Pantera vocalist Philip Anselmo. The band's carefully constructed anti-image – anonymous, faceless, shadowy figures fronted by a masked, mitre-sporting demon – also ensures they stand apart from the identikit metal masses.

"Ghost, as a concept, what we're doing  wasn't really spawned as necessarily a homage to old occult progressive music," states the Nameless Ghoul, the band's official spokesman. "There has been a fixation on this occult rock wave that is happening, and I think it's too much focused on the idea that it's a retro thing. We hope that Ghost will be appreciated as an occult electrical rock theatre  phenomenon."

Booked to be the proverbial sore thumbs on Metal Hammer magazine's forthcoming Defenders of the Faith UK tour in December, sandwiched between Brit metalcore newcomers Rise to Remain and US metal big-hitters Trivium, Ghost have somehow infiltrated the heavy music world's upper echelons without compromising their vision. According to Metal Hammer editor Alexander Milas, they have simply harnessed metal's true essence.

"Heavy metal and the macabre are no strangers to each other, but it's really Ghost's sense of theatre, which is an homage to Kiss, King Diamond, Alice Cooper and the vaudevillian artists who inspired them, that drives their appeal among metal fans," he says. "They're the summation of everything that has driven metal's appeal since Black Sabbath struck a chord with music fans who couldn't resonate with the hippie zeitgeist and craved something darker and heavier. The decision to have them on our Defenders of the Faith tour was a no-brainer: they embody what it is to be metal, and their music's simply sublime."

Of course, part of the reason why occult rock had such an impact 40 years ago is that in those days it seemed genuinely creepy, in the same way that Hammer films were actual horror movies, whereas now they come across as period kitsch. In the decades since, though, arts and entertainment have reached extremes that would have been unthinkable in 1970. A band such as Ghost are unlikely to shock, regardless of whether they are perceived to be true servants of Beelzebub or not.

"Do we believe in the devil? The most important thing is that the devil believes in us," deadpans the Ghoul. "There is a blasphemous aura that surrounds what we do. We want our audience to step into our black bubble, into something else, something beyond. We want Ghost to be perceived almost in a cinematic way, just as somebody goes to the theatre to see The Omen or The Exorcist. It's all supposed to be ultra-diabolic."

Whether it's a heartfelt expression of devilish beliefs or simply a good excuse to wear a spooky mask and annoy a few Christians, occult rock can hardly fail to provide a welcome antidote to an increasingly soulless and cynical music world that prizes profit over atmosphere, and perfection over power. Perhaps more importantly, its newest exponents seem to have abandoned shock tactics in favour of a subtle, persuasive approach worthy of Eden's duplicitous serpent himself.

"If you're not really into metal and you glance at Ghost in a magazine, you might think they're going to sound really evil and extreme," says Dorrian. "But what they do is quite beautiful classic rock with great melodies. Everything about them is contradictory, but it works. They have a real magic about them. Embracing the occult is about being taken over by some esoteric force, and that's how good music works, too, isn't it?"

Sleeping with Demons by Black Widow is out now on Smack Management. Ghost appear on the Defenders of the Faith tour from December 1-8. Details


Dom Lawson

The GuardianTramp

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