In 2009, I remember telling people that the cover art for Blackguard's album "Profugus Mortis" was a near perfect representation of the music contained on the album; a flying canoe full of colonial-era drunkards being chased by an apparently clumsy demon. That picture of whimsy and imagination was curried from the cuts on "Profugus Mortis." If that was the case then, then the cover art for Blackguard's new album "Firefight," is equally representative of the music contained within. The dark, blasted, cratered landscape depicted is marked only with a single city on a rise. That city is under fiery assault from all angles, stormed by a deluge of flaming arrows. This sets the scene for "Firefight."
For better or worse, “Firefight” largely does away with the sense of adventure that "Profugus Mortis" featured so prominently. The album is instead rife with gritty themes and aggressive percussion, painting an image more akin to trench warfare than to battles of fantasy. The removal of the highwayman’s spirit from “Firefight” does not mean that the album lacks in grandeur or dramatic sense, however. The choral interjections of “Cruel Hands” or the selectively powerful keyboard of “The Path,” are remarkably well constructed and keep the album from straying too far from what fans have come to know from the Montreal quintet (formerly sextet, more on that in a minute.)
“Firefight” also features greater synergy of elements than Blackguard’s previous efforts. Where before the listener may have noticed entire sections where the keyboard came to the fore, or the guitar reigned supreme, those instruments are more seamlessly woven into each other as part of the greater fabric of the album. The keyboard’s lack of virtuosity relative to previous efforts may have to do with keyboard player and mixer Jonathan Lefrancois-Leduc leaving the band (and not being replaced) in the summer of 2010.
His leaving has also removed one of the songwriters from Blackguard’s repertoire, so the shift from high-flying, mead-drinking adventure band to roiling, fuming, gutsy band is likely a byproduct of that change. The musical and attitudinal alteration has taken a small chip away from what made Blackguard stand out in the genre. They’re still unique; just not as instantly recognizable.
What does stand out is the consistent and thoroughly engaging percussion that is ceaseless throughout the effort. As a showcase for the drumming talents of Justine Ethier, "Firefight" is a tremendous success. She blasts beats all across the album, displaying an ability to play effectively with power, speed and finesse.
It should be mentioned that “Firefight” really hits its stride after the classically-inspired musical interlude of “Iblis.” Directly thereafter, Blackguard rumbles into the brooding, severe “The Fear of All Flesh,” which then pivots and turns into the melodic, simplified hooks of “A Blinding Light.” This pair in turn careens into “The Path” and the appropriately dramatic, almost swinging “Sarissas” as album closer. Just like the cover art would have you believe, each song in this set is a storm of up-tempo, unrelenting metal.
Even on the lesser tracks such as “Wastelands,” it’s hard to ignore the kind of impacting downbeat that Blackguard can generate. Kim Gosselin accents this and all the songs on the first half with a solid rumbling gallop, particularly in partnership with rhythm player Terry Roadcase.
On the subject of Gosselin, he’s written himself the same freedom for drop-of-a-hat soloing that gave him such a pronounced presence on “Profugus Mortis.” He whips up and down the scales with precision and flair, turning the entire second half of “Farewell” into his personal playground. Gosselin’s ability to accent songs does not go unnoticed, though it should be noted that he tends to return to the same handful of tricks throughout the album.
“Firefight” doesn’t quite have the same spark that made “Profugus Mortis” such a refreshing joy, and the songs tend to be a little similar track to track. However, and this is a big however, that does not make “Firefight” a bad album by any stretch. This effort sounds a little like Children of Bodom Junior in a couple spots, but that’s hardly damning company. Blackguard’s talent and honesty is clearly evident in their music, so this exploration into the band’s darker side is still entirely worthwhile. The more times I hear it, the more it grows on me, and “Firefight” is a clear leader among this year’s crop of folk/epic/Viking metal. Blackguard is a really solid, fun band finally getting their due after toiling for years and going through all the motions. Give “Firefight” a chance; it’s different, but it doesn’t disappoint.