Sometimes it just takes some tenacity and hardwork. Blackguard, a band formed in 2001 under the name Profugus Mortis, finally settles on a lineup and gets their album onto the streets. Profugus Mortis had released a handful of EP's and small collections of music, but never had they come upon one definitive idea. Enter their self-reinvention as Blackguard.
Formed in Montreal by drummer Justine Ethier, Blackguard exists at the four way intersection between cathedral fugues, the organ playing at a hockey game, the tongue-in-cheek attitude of Edguy and the ferocity of Children of Bodom. It is wholly none of those things, but takes pieces of all of them. It's keyboard-laden heavy metal that knows its limitations and embraces its nature.
Blackguard, in a strange twist for this genre of metal, seems to concede that they don't have a top-flight guitar player. They don't attempt to overdose on speed, and don't make a challenge to acts like Children of Bodom or Dragonforce. This is for the best, as ultimately, Blackguard would lose, and lose face in the attempt. Don't get me wrong, Kim Gosselin is plenty good, but they don't ask him to do alot, and he only rarely showcases something more than basic black metal ability.
So instead, Blackguard lean heavily on their keyboards, to great effect. This is what separates their sound and makes them unique from other black or so-called "folk" metal bands. Rather than use their keyboard as ambient fill, it often provides the base melody, and dictates the changes of the song. Ultimately, this leads to an almost surreal duel between Gosselin on guitar and Jonathan Lefrancois-Leduc on keyboard, as they play alternating parts on "Cinder." Which seriously, if I owned a hockey team, might be entrance music.
The usual blast beats are present, but are used to proper effect, rather than constant auditory battering. The sheer speed of them isn't the fastest, but they are properly placed and allow for the other instruments to flourish without dominating them. To that end, the production here is crisp, allowing each part its place. Best yet, the otherwise forgettable vocals (the singing is typical black metal fare,) are easily overlooked.
Lyrically however, the band seems to not take itself too seriously. Rather than the usual black metal despair and doom, this album is almost an ode to the concept of the highwayman, a journeying nomad who battles demons and vagrants. As a showcase, one of the first tracks is "This Round's on Me," which seems a tribute to buying mead for other hearty souls. As it is, the cover art for the album is tremendously fitting, a scene of 18th century pioneers drinking in a flying canoe and being chased by a demon. Honestly, given the music, the only thing that might have been better would be to depict Johann Sebastian Bach in a Canadiens uniform and beating a demon five hole for a game-winner. Which might be the most ludicrous sentence I've ever written.
It is rare that a song, especially in this sect of metal, gets caught in my head on the first listen. That was the case with my new song-of-the-minute, "In Time." This song catches my ear more than anything else on the album. I like the way it's constructed. The keyboard leads the way, but weaves in and out of the melody. It does have a long period in the middle that strays a bit, but comes back with a strong finish.
Really, the whole album is like that. There are a couple duds in the middle ("Allegiance" and "I Demon" are really nothing special,) but the album on the whole is very strong. Make no mistake, though. Despite the lack of auditory carnage so often seen in black metal, Blackguard is not a good gateway for non-metal fans to get in. It lacks the kind of accessability that would turn the ear of someone not familiar with it. If you're not a fan of the genre, this will do nothing to change your mind.
One of the odd points worth noting is that while "Profugus Mortis" shares many traits with so many Scandanavian black metal albums, it doesn't sound quite the same. There are influences that might be called classic French, or by extension, French Canadian. Whether or not you prefer the little twist is entirely subjective.
The only thing I worry about with Blackguard is the question of "what's next?" There may only be so much expansion that they're capable of, especially considering the long yarn of what it took for them to get one album with a noticeable release. In the meantime, if you're a fan of shamelessly over-the-top dramatic keyboard black metal (Eric, I'm definitely looking at you,) there's a lot to like here.