Dark, cynical roadhouses lke Bogie’s in Albany, New York have been and continue to be the proving grounds or metal. It is here that the crowds deem bands worthy, encouraging their heroes with raised glasses of ale while passing judgment on inferior act with their austere silence. The lights are low, the die-hards are out, the Sword of Damocles dangles precariously over the musician’s necks.
Into this arena stepped Blackguard, veterans of the road and champions of the recently white-hot Montreal metal scene. Armed and dangerous with their arsenal of power riffs and ceaseless drums, the five-piece faced metal’s faithful with confidence. A shadowy intro led to risen lights accompanied by full blown chaos with “The Path”
What always strikes most about Blackguard in observation is their unique energy and the feedback cycle it creates with the crowd. Vocalist/master of ceremonies Paul ‘Ablaze’ Zinay refuses to allow a single set of eyes to waver, or a single body to be still. You can’t hide from him. You can’t be still, If you head can no longer band, he will reach into the crowd, grab your head and obligingly bang it for you. Zinay refuses to let anyone close to the stage sweat less than he does. Yet, not to be outdone, Zinay throws himself into the act just as feverishly, launching from the back of the stage to the front over and over again.
If Zinay is the heart of Blackguard, then bassist Étienne Mailloux might well be the soul. He never shies from the spotlight, and no monitor is too tall for him to stand on and posture to the crowd. His bass is as much proverbial weapon as instrument, as he uses it not only to get attention to from those looking the other way, but will ‘stab’ willing audience members with the head, creating a secondary stage show to the overall performance. Never to be ignored, Mailloux will even jump into the circle pit, using cordless jacks to his advantage, giving brief private performances for all the women in the crowd.
Much of the set list on this night was concerned with the band’s third and most recent album, “Firefight.” “This is how we’re defining ourselves right now” Zinay told me before the show. “If someone asks me, ‘what do you think of Blackguard as?’ I call us a symphonic melodic death metal band.” According to the frontman, this is where the band feels most comfortable, belting out one high-speed, crunchy melodic death romp after another, and the band behind him backed that up by launching from “The Path” into the equally massive “Tephra.”
There are two things that become increasingly lucid as Blackguard’s set carries on. First, that no member of Blackguard is more important than any other member. Even new guitar player Louis Jacques is given his due, Zinay telling me “he’s been with us about four months now, this is his first tour with us. He’s a hell of a guitar player,” then, stressing the point, “he’s a really good player.” When a band debuts a new member, it’s often readily evident whether or not that person is a good fit for the band. Unequivocally, Jacques is the proper guitarist for Blackguard, as his talent and affect mesh well with the band around him.
While Paul has insisted that the band will not return to their folk roots in the near future, those who think "Profugus Mortis" is the pinnacle of the band's career will not be disappointed by their live show. Reaching back in the the back of tricks without a keyboard player, the PA fills in nicely for the opening, orchestral strains of high-speed folk metal standard "Cinder." It is a testament to the band's dedication to their audience that these pieces are played with equal relish and effort as the new, more favored tracks. "Cinder," lovingly called "the fast one" by the band, is equally as capable as any piece in the set, and showcases the band's ability to bring breakneck studio precision into glorious live production.
Old favorite "The Sword" sounds as timelessly enjoyable now as it did then, and the crowd favors this piece for moshing and circle pitting. The song remains the tentpole of Blackguard's set, and highlights a truly unqiue part of the Blackguard experience; the better and more reactive the crowd is, the more energetic the band becomes. As the crowd on this night cheered and clapped and moshed with fervor, the band on stage grew bolder and more enthusiastic. The joy that Blackguard takes in performing feeds into the crowd below, creating a palpable sense of enjoyment both on and in front of the stage. It's a rare show where the pit is filled with smiles, but this is that show.
The apex of the set comes naturally more toward the end, with the headbanging mastery and general infectiousness of “Wastelands,” Blackguard’s most defiant song to date. Where the other set pieces are meant to instill kinetic energy and a frenetic atmosphere, “Wastelands” brings everything home to a rhythmic assault on the head, neck and shoulders.
So what’s next for Blackguard as the tour cycle for “Firefight” comes to a close? Releases have been swirling around that production on a new album, tentatively titled “Storm,” has begun. “I’ve been working on it for the last couple months, I have a good chunk of the songs done lyrically,” Zinay offered when asked, “The skeletons are done, we just have to refine them.”
The first time we had spoken, Paul had clued me in that his next record might be a concept style album, and he assured me in our conversation that he’s been able to develop a plot that continues out of the song “Firefight.” As he explains it, it follows the exploits of a singular character who emerges from the burned-out city depicted in the titular song. Still, this seems like it hardly be a mere sequel to 2011’s album.
“We’re taking a lot more time with this album than we did with “Firefight,”” Zinay told me. Then after a pause, his voice focused and he gave a small glimpse into the potential of this forthcoming record.
“What we need to do at this point is write the record of our career. We can’t write something that’s subpar, or not as good as what we’ve done in the past. We can’t afford to do that as a band.” If Blackguard can deliver on that promise, 2013 will be a promising year for them, indeed.