By Carl Begai
Between 2009 and 2013, a small yet volatile Canadian melodic death metal band dubbed Blackguard was out for blood. The bloodlust was awakened several years earlier (between 2001 and 2004) when they were known as Profugus Mortis, the band creating their own brand of folk-flavoured melodic death metal. They attracted a decent amount of attention with a small collection of songs – BraveWords being one of their first media followers – which were eventually showcased on the 2007 album, So It Begins. From there it was full speed ahead. Over the course of two album releases under the Blackguard name – Profugus Mortis (2009) and Firefight (2011) – the band ripped through North America with occasional jaunts across Europe for a whopping 18 tours. Having supported everyone from Korpiklaani to Nevermore to Epica to Deicide, Blackguard was a name that nobody was likely to forget, and ultimately that was the band’s downfall. Plain and simple, fans got sick of seeing them turn up at every show coming through town. When Blackguard announced they were working on a new album in around 2013, interest seemed to be at an all-time low not only amongst the fans but within the band itself. As a result, the long-suffering record known as Storm, which was teased sporadically as “almost done” by the band for years, stayed buried until January 2020.
“I guess you can boil it down to a series of unfortunate events for the most part,” says frontman Paul “Ablaze” Zinay of what he concedes was a mind-boggling delay. “We started writing the album in 2012, and it probably should have come out in 2013 or 2014. When 2013 came around we were starting to feel burnt out at that point because we were so stupid; we toured way too fucking much in North America and just ended up killing ourselves. The last tour we did was Finntroll in 2013, and nobody actually said it at first, but there was the feeling within the band that it was going to be our last tour for a long time. We didn’t have a conversation but the writing was on the wall; we didn’t want this anymore. We can’t blame anybody but ourselves for that because at the end of the day we said yes to going out as much as we did. We should have said no, but what’s the saying? ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions.'”
“Our mindset at the time… we were too much in a famine mode, thinking ‘We have these opportunities, these are different crowds, no tour is exactly the same…’ In 2013 we did the Soilwork tour and the Finntroll tour at the end of the year, and Finntroll should have been an amazing run for us but it was just terrible. We’d burnt out our own audience so they weren’t coming out. Metsatöll were destroying us on stage… I think it was their first North American run and people were super stoked to see them, and we came on after them so it was ‘Oh, it’s those fucking guys again.’ We ate all of our mistakes on that tour. By the end of it we needed to take a long break. We decided to take a whole year off and see how we felt after that time away. We did do two shows – one in Ottawa and one in London, Ontario – and I thought we were going to get back to it, and then nothing happened. Nobody pushed to get it going again, nobody really wanted it.”
“For all intents and purposes, Storm was finished. All the principle tracking was pretty much done; it was just the mixing and mastering that needed to be finished up, but no one wanted it. We beat ourselves to death, we beat our audience to death… it wasn’t fun anymore. And that’s really the long and short of it.”
Storm is, from where this rivet-head sits, the strongest album of Blackguard’s career. Their debut and Firefight have some stellar moments, but the overall energy and in-your-face attitude recalls their early material penned as Profugus Mortis even though the songs and production on Storm are far superior. As an outsider, it’s hard to understand why the band didn’t push harder to put these songs out years earlier. According to Zinay, it came down to the taste of bitter experience stopping the band in their tracks.
“I think everybody was waiting for someone else to pick up the phone and make the call. It almost happened a couple of times. There were a few quasi-offers that came our way for a one-off show here or a one-off show there. We had an offer to open for Korpiklaani in Montréal and we thought might be a good way to make a comeback, but that fell by the wayside. Things started to take a turn at the beginning of 2019 when we decided we’d been sitting on this album for too fucking long. People were starting to forget us. We decided to release the album for ourselves and for our fans, not to try and make new fans. The age of Blackguard being a career band in long gone, and quite frankly the idea of being in a career band in this day and age is a gamble. I’m quite happy to wind everything back and do everything 100% on our own terms.”
“Last year I started to get that itch again,” he continues. “I hadn’t listened to the record in quite literally years, so I listened to some of the rough mixes and, man, these songs are good (laughs). I began thinking that we can’t just let it end this way, where we just stopped and never picked it back up. I said ‘We have to come back, we have to put this record out.’ It doesn’t matter at what capacity we operate this band; we have to either give this a proper ending or start it back up again and we do it on our terms. That might mean one-offs every once in a while and I’m 100% content with that.”
“As I mentioned, going back and listening to those songs after not hearing them for so long – and realizing we have this fucking amazing album – there’s a part of me that wishes we hadn’t burned ourselves out. If we were still a touring unit and put this out on a label, I feel that it could have done something significant. Maybe that’s just wishful thinking, but I think it’s a melodic death metal record that stands amongst any of our peers on the international scene. For me, everything is top notch on Storm.”
Zinay confirms that what we are hearing on Storm are the original songs as they were laid down in 2013. Nothing was added or tweaked prior to the 2020 release.
“All the tracks were written in that 2013 timeframe, and the tracking of the album took forever because we were fitting the writing and recording in between tours,” Zinay reveals. “It was very spread out. If memory serves me correctly, I think we played ‘By My Hand’ on the Finntroll tour. There’s live video of us playing that song, I’m pretty sure. It would be under the title ‘Rise’ but I changed it because there were too many songs out there with that title.”
The album features guest appearances from Kittie singer Morgan Lander, former Cradle Of Filth backing vocalist Lindsay Schoolcraft, and the return of violinist Emily Livernois-Desroches, who was a band member going back to the days of Profugus Mortis.
“Yeah, Emily came back and did the tracks (‘By My Hand’ and ‘To Ashes Return’), and we were really fucking happy to have her involved,” says Zinay. “There was space for her because that’s part of our sound, so we called her up and she was more than happy to come in. I don’t see her often enough – maybe once every couple years in passing – so it was amazing for her to come by and make the contribution to the album. The goal down the road is doing a headline show in Montreal – some time sooner than later – where we could do a retrospective show and play songs from all of our records. And if that happens, the idea is to have Emily come back and play violin, have Joe (Jonathan Lefrançois-Leduc – who produced Storm) come back to play live keys again. The door is always going to be open for that kind of thing.”
With the passage of time, Blackguard’s line-up has been whittled down to the trio of Zinay, drummer Justine Ethier, and guitarist Terry “Roadcase” Deschenes. At least on paper.
“We’re the core that has always been there, but going into the live shows we enlisted David Gagné, who plays in Your Last Wish out of Montréal. He’s been our live lead guitar since the Finntroll tour, so he’s basically Blackguard’s lead guitarist in everything but title. We’d give him the official designation if he ever wants it.”
Blackguard not only kicked off 2020 with the release of Storm, they performed to a hometown audience in Montréal supporting Epica and The Agonist. It was a much-needed return to form that, if Zinay has his way, will continue over the course of the next year and beyond..
“That was fucking unreal,” he says of the gig. “It was super nerve-wracking for me; definitely one of the most stressful shows I’ve done in my life. It was our first hometown show in something like seven years. Getting the invite from Epica was a huge honour, and then to be doing it with The Agonist… not only have we all toured together on the same tour, we’ve done multiple tours with both of those bands. We’re all good friends, so to be able to come back and do a hometown show with these people… that was stressful enough. And for me, the inactivity of the last few years led to some compromises with my vocal strength. I’ve had some issues, so I had to work harder than I ever have to fine tune every little facet of my game. I spent time in the jam room by myself with the instrumental tracks, running around and doing my set to recreate what it would be like on stage. My vocal endurance was a huge issue, to the point that I took screaming lessons (laughs). I worked really hard, and I’m so happy the show turned out as well as it did.”
Asked if there are plans to write and record new material in the near future, Zinay won’t commit to the idea but hasn’t dismissed the possibility.
“First of all, we definitely want to do more shows and we’re trying to lay the groundwork for that. I’ve got my sights on doing 70000 Tons Of Metal next year, so let’s see if they’ll have us. And in termns of new music… right now it’s a matter of keeping the momentum up by doing shows and letting people know that we’re still alive.”