On Saturday, God and the devil had a duel, and God won. Pope Francis came to town on the same day the pointy-cap-wearing, skull-masked singer Papa Emeritus III and his sacrilegious Swedish metal band Ghost sold out Union Transfer. And it's only fair to give the nod to the Holy Father, who drew hundreds of thousands. But Ghost did a pretty great show.
Emeritus and each of his Nameless Ghouls (each masked instrumentalist is called that) were rumored to be driving on Spring Garden Street in a satanic procession. Their recently released Meliora features songs like "Deus in Absentia," which translates to "God in Absence." Goats and sheep were in fear of sacrifice.
If you didn't know Ghost, as most of this seething throng did - word for godless, celebratory word - the first surprise might have been their melodic thrust, a zealously contagious mix of creepy power-balladry and clarion-clean epic rockers that transcended any idea of bleak unholy Swedish metal and leaped into Faith No More-meets-Europe (of "The Final Countdown") territory. From "Ghuleh/Zombie Queen" to "Con Clavi Con Dio," the song structures were sleek and neatly ordered, bridges and choruses rose and rolled like grandly cresting waters, and Emeritus' vocals were smooth and mighty.
Entering to the hymnlike whoosh of Gregorio Allegri's "Miserere mei Deus," the Nameless Ghouls rocked in unison (think the Residents, only meaner). Then Emeritus entered in papal gear - mitre and all - and in his gorgeous, supple voice sang lyrics like "Throw yourself / Into the vessel of possibilities" (in "Spirit") and "You wield the scepter / You wear the gown" (in "From the Pinnacle to the Pit"). Throughout the show, there was a Jon Lord-Deep Purple-like feel to the organ work in "Ritual" and more harmonies than a righteous church choir.
As for the anti-pope act, Emeritus swung an incense ball during the choppy, tech-metal "Per Aspera ad Inferi," and afterward talked up Pope Francis' visit to Philly. "How about that Frankie!" said Emeritus in a nice-guy voice. "Someone told me he had poor attendance."
Emeritus didn't stay in bad pope character forever. He changed out of his robes and pointy cap for a colonial regal cloak and breeches and crooned through the carnival metal of "Stand by Him," the "School's Out"-like rave-up of "Prime Mover," and the orchestral "Body and Blood." The last-mentioned tune segued into the anthemic "Devil Church" and its gorgeously arching bridge.