2018's Prequelle was a divisive record for Ghost, to say the least. While still wielding their tried-and-true brand of gothic arena rock/doom metal (as if they're hellbent on taking over for Goblin when it comes to scoring 1970s-esque Giallo films), many fans and publications—including us—felt that it was a bit too safe, cheesy, poppy, and self-indulgent. Although follow-up Impera doesn't rewrite the rulebook or deviate too drastically from Ghost's established formula, its emphasis on heavier and trickier arrangements and melodies makes it a marked improvement over its predecessor.
Like countless other recent releases, Impera was heavily delayed due to the pandemic; in fact, it was initially scheduled to arrive around the end of summer 2020. As for its concept, mastermind Tobias Forge/Papa Emeritus IV explains that he came up with it several years ago and that it centers on "the rise and ultimately the unescapable fails and falls of empires." He also notes that whereas Prequelle's primary theme (about the 14th century Afro-Eurasian Black Death) was "a tiny tad more spiritual and philosophical," this LP's tale of extinction is "a little bit more practical" (due in part to its parallels to modern times). With help from his ever-changing arsenal of Nameless Ghouls—as well as guests such as drummer Hux Nettermalm, pianist Martin Hederos, and Opeth guitarist Fredrik Åkesson—Forge brings his tale to life with irresistible flair and fieriness.
Impera immediately reveals itself as a grander and stronger work (compared to Prequelle) thanks to the gorgeously morose and ominous opener, "Imperium." Starting with downtrodden acoustic guitar arpeggios, it soon evolves to include stacked electric guitar outcries, marching percussion, powerful piano chords, and other imposingly fatalistic timbres. It definitely gets you in the mood for what's to come, and fortunately, subsequent interludes "Dominion" and "Bite of Passage" uphold that cinematic vibe with foreboding horns and atmospheric tapestries, respectively.
In-between, Ghost deliver some of their catchiest and/or most lavishly arranged belters. Specifically, the first proper song—"Kaisarion"—kicks off with a stadium rock scream and Queen-esque guitarwork. Then, it sets up the aforementioned main topic with charmingly detailed rhymes ("Kaisarion, a prophecy told / We're building our empire from the ashes of an old"), highly engaging hooks, and bursts of vintage progressive rock complexity. Rarely have they married fetching songwriting and sophisticatedly adventurous instrumentation this well.
Later, the epic dual guitar licks of lead single "Hunter's Moon" make it just as compelling, while "Watcher in the Sky" enticingly blends djent intensity with soaring choruses and "Twenties" marginally evokes the irregular peculiarities of System Of A Down. As superb as those tracks are, Impera's crowning achievement is closer "Respite on the Spitalfields." It segues out of "Bite of Passage" with an air of vibrant yet stern closure (as most great finales do), building from a riff-heavy ballad to a magnificently bittersweet and multilayered extravaganza that leaves you in awe. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, it's a clear contender for the band's finest composition to date.
Even the album's softer and more radio-friendly pieces—which are typically their most contentious ones—are at home and extremely enjoyable. Yes, "Spillways" conjures Foreigner's "Cold As Ice," but its triumphant block harmonies and darker elements can't help but appeal. Likewise, "Call Me Little Sunshine" is a heartfelt, almost pastoral ode with just enough edge to satisfy, whereas "Grift Wood" is too enchantingly decorated and tuneful to write off. Honestly, you can't help but adore and sing along to it.
Impera is undoubtedly a huge step up from Prequelle if not one of Ghost's best collections period. Sure, it's still a tad more accessible and light compared to their first two or three albums—prioritizing welcoming rock over weird metal in most cases—but that's hardly a flaw considering how unified and exciting it is. Although no creative work is perfect, it's difficult to find a single lackluster moment or entire misstep on Impera, making it a victorious return to form (at least somewhat) and a generally exceptional record.