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Assassin's Blade's Jacques Bélanger: "Before I joined Exciter, I sang in a “cleaner style” more like a mix of Dickinson and Halford. I was therefore glad to see that Peter wanted me to go back to a style that was more natural to me…"

Interview with Jacques Bélanger from Assassin's Blade
by Lior "Steinmetal" Stein at 14 January 2020, 1:23 AM

Finding a rightful home to keep the flame burning bright and strong. It is not easy for the vast majority of musicians, especially those that are part of groups overseas, to just pack up and leave for a period of time, life hits from every corner. However, nowadays' technology and the lower pressure, help maintain artist that wish to take it easy, yet when doing what they do, they do it to perfection. Following the release of their second album, "Gather Darkness", Steinmetal had the privilege to talk with ex-Exciter, Jacques Bélanger, about Assassin's Blade new effort, its philosophy, his personal views on things that matter and more…  

Hello Jacques, it is quite an honor having you for this interview for Metal Temple online Magazine, how have you been doing sir?

Hi Lior. How are you? I have been extremely busy with life in general, but life is cool so I am fine… I guess J. Thank you for your interest in Assassin’s Blade.

The engines of Assassin’s Blade continue to burn, moving forward, and now with the release of its sophomore, “Gather Darkness”, once again through Pure Steel Records. In short, before we go in deep, I was sent back to the 80s with a flash, and it was good. What is your viewpoint about the end product? Please elaborate

The end product is the natural convergence of five individuals who write/compose/play from the heart. We do not set a direction beforehand. We just let emotions flow and produce what comes naturally without filters. As I said numerous times, inspiration is the sum of all we have been exposed to in life. In our case, some inspirations sound quite obvious, while some need a little analysis to be detected.

When you say that “Gather Darkness” brings you back to the 80s, I see what you mean: that is probably where most of our influences lie. We have been considered NWOBHM; I do not disagree with that. But if you listen closely to all to our tracks, you will hear some Power Metal, some Thrash Metal, some Progressive Metal (just a tad) and many more styles. Take me, for example. For the last 40 years, I have been shaped by the music I was a fan of. For instance, I listened to a lot of progressive rock from the 70′ (Genesis, Yes, Gentle Giant, Jethro Tull) and classical music. As for my colleagues, Peter and Dave, who write the music and the lyrics, the influences are also numerous as well as diverse: Priest, Maiden, Mercyful Fate, etc. All those musical genres to which we have been exposed have shaped the way we understand, write and interpret music. When you combine everyone’s interpretation, you end up with a product that sounds like neither of those influences. You have typical Assassin’s Blade material.

Obviously, we did not intend to reinvent the wheel, although some reviewers have reproached us for not being original enough. Maybe the next AB album should feature trumpets and Gregorian chants; but I am quite sure that has already been done also. But all joking aside, at the end of the day, we play a classic type of metal, so our material will never make you feel like you are on a different planet… and that is perfectly fine by me.

In your recent shows, have you been performing a single, or two, titles from the new album? If so, what were the reactions? I have the slightest feeling that the local Swedish audience will fall into it

So far, AB has played only one show, at the Metal Magic festival (2017) in Denmark. At that gig, we played a couple of new songs that had not been released yet, namely “Tempt Not (the Blade of the Assassin)” and “I of the Storm”. So Sweden has yet to see us live.

 “Gather Darkness” displays an intriguing artwork, which from where I am sitting, tells quite an amazing story of how religion, or old beliefs, are blend with nowadays technological environment, and its hazards. First off, who created this fine piece of work? Second, what was the brainstorming behind what we are looking at here?

First of all, Peter is the only lyricist. Peter is a smart and creative artist, and we trust him blindly. Therefore, he is the one who creates the concepts that are featured in our songs/albums, so there was no real brainstorm concerning either the songs or the album cover. Sort of like Steve Harris in Iron Maiden. Everything falls into place from there. For one, he wanted to reintegrate into this project the “assassins” – the sort of “dandy samourai” – who are at the origin of the band name “Assassin’s Blade”. From that point on, Peter analyzed the lyrical content of the whole album and imagined a scene that would illustrate that content. Peter presented his ideas to the band; we all agreed. Then he contacted a pretty cool artist he already knew, Juha Vuorma (http://www.opticmatador.com), from Finland. Juha submitted a few sketches; the band agreed on a scene/layout. Then, Juha created a painting which was used for the album. Keep in mind, each song can be inspired by a novel, a myth, a legend or a historical fact that are not necessarily related. But they are carefully chosen and arranged to correspond to the concepts that need to be staged in order to tell the story that is portrayed in Gather Darkness”.

In connection to the artwork, what is the philosophy behind “Gather Darkness”? What is the leading theme that maintains the essence of the lyrics of this release? What was the inspiration behind the lyrics?

The lyrical content is directly linked to themes that constitute the foundation of heavy metal: a fantasized version of everything that is going wrong in the world or, if you will, what we call the Dark Forces. It is sort of a personification of good and evil: the good being represented by the Assassins, the defenders of science, reason, truth and virtue; and the evil represented by the sectarian monks who idealize fanaticism, dogma, greed, resentment, tribalism and jingoism. Technology (an application of science and truth to do good or evil) and its disastrous potential are represented by the nuclear centrals and the black smoke as well as the laptop that is at the center of the “dark gathering”. Ironically, the Assassins only have their knives for weapons (like us metal musicians who only have our guitars, drums and voices to denounce the evil/occult forces of our world). But their skills, dedication, abnegation, courage and vision will lead them to victory and greatness. This pretty much sums up the philosophy of heavy metal.

In my short comment earlier, I said that “Gather Darkness” sent me back to the 80s in a flash, but not back. It kept me there. This album is like a refined Exciter album, along with various other elements that could be traced to your time with the band. It is highly energetic, yet also melodic and it would easily grasp in its clutches. Would you say that you early Exciter days never really left you as it has been evident in the direction of the vocals and music on “Gather Darkness”?

That’s a good observation and a good question. You are right; this album could very well be considered as a “more refined” version of Exciter. Same power, same energy, with music, lyrics and arrangements that are more elaborate. To me, it is quite logical since Peter has been a big Exciter fan for years. And let’s face it, my contribution to Exciter was totally dictated by John Ricci. He wrote all the lyrics and all the vocal lines and basically told me: “Here, this is what I want you to do”. I simply executed. John knew my vocal range and decided to put it to “good use”. Therefore, the extreme vocal style that I presented during my Exciter years has been shaped by John all along. Now, Peter really liked my “Exciter vocal style” and wanted to integrate it into his music. So basically it is not so much me who brought the Exciter style; it is rather Peter and Dave who pulled it out of the moth balls and brought it back to life in Assassin’s Blade, which explains the resemblance. As for the music, Exciter is only one of the many influences that have shaped AB’s music.

Straying off a bit, about Exciter, you were probably asked about it for plenty of times, yet I still think it is quite relevant. Do you ever miss your time with the band? Do you feel that with Assassin’s Blade you were able to keep yourself motivated to create music, years after your time with Exciter?

A long time ago, I made a point of never dwelling on the past. I never regretted the moves that I made. It is too easy to judge a behavior or a decision that may have happened a long time ago. The person that I am now is not the one who made the decision then. Decisions are made in particular circumstances. Pacts and contracts are concluded and abrogated, and that’s part of human life.

Now, I must say that I really enjoyed most aspects of my participation in Exciter. Do I miss that time? No, not at all. When I decided to leave Exciter (actually, I left Exciter three times in 10 years), I had good reasons to do so. In fact, Exciter was an important commitment for me since I believed our contribution was meaningful; I was always convinced that the band still had a lot of unexploited potential. But that commitment was not the same for every member of the band. Some members had an ego and were too complacent. They just wanted to ride the wave instead of being part of the driving force that could have propelled the band to new heights. They were content with playing pseudo rockstars, and I had a hard time putting up with this attitude. In this business, a musician cannot take anything for granted. John was investing huge amounts of time and energy, and I wanted the rest of the band to live up to his exemplary dedication. Unfortunately, it was not the case, and for some obscure reasons, John sided with the fools, so I concluded I was no longer the guy for the role. To be honest, after my last departure, in 2006, I had decided to say goodbye to music and to devote myself to other activities.

It is only eight years later that Peter called me and asked me to record some vocals on his songs. And yes, I really enjoyed the music and the lyrics. It did not sound like Exciter, but it had the same energy, and yes, I was really pleased with the fact that it was more elaborate. I was happy to get an occasion to evolve as a vocalist. Before I joined Exciter, I sang in a “cleaner style” more like a mix of Dickinson and Halford. I was therefore glad to see that Peter wanted me to go back to a style that was more natural to me. Besides, I already knew Peter. I accepted working with him because of the quality of his material, but also because I really like the guy. Then, working with him and Dave was a really cool experience. After being totally silent for eight years, I did not know how my voice would react. Then I realized that it was still good, so that also contributed to my enjoying this return to the metal music business.

Let’s go back. Do you think that with “Gather Darkness” made a step forward for Assassin’s Blade musical creativity? What makes the album standout in comparison to your debut?

The songs on ‘Agents of Mystification’ were written before I joined the band. Besides, Peter and Dave had another vocalist in mind at the time, which influenced the musical orientation. Moreover, since this venture started as a project among friends, we had recorded the vocals to only six songs the first time I flew over to Sweden, in 2014. When we realized that Assassin’s Blade was generating some interest, I started recording the rest of the vocals here in Ottawa, at Manfred Leideckr’s studio. There was a lot of improvisation and “spur-of-the-moment” decisions all along, which negatively impacted the sound on the album. Also, we had to adapt to this long distance work relationship for which we were not really prepared.

With "Gather Darkness", we knew each other better, we had developed a modus operandi and had better connections for mixing and mastering. All the songs had been written for Assassin’s Blade as we know it, which increased the maturity level of the overall product. In my opinion, every aspect of writing, composing, recording, etc., has been considerably improved for “Gather Darkness”.

Listening to “Gather Darkness”, the songwriting and arrangements seem pretty much straightforward, old school Metal from top to bottom. Do you guys like keeping it traditional in your songwriting style? Are there forces in the band that have been trying to push towards new methods and approaches? Would you say that you are a democratic kind of band when writing material?

"Gather Darkness” is a straightforward album, in part, because we need to keep things simple and because of the distance that separates me from the band. Knowing myself and knowing Dave and Peter’s talent and open-mindedness, I am pretty sure that we would have greatly expanded Assassin’s Blade’s horizons had we been able to work together on a regular basis. For instance, I am a big fan of 70’s progressive rock (my favorite being the British band ‘Gentle Giant’) and of its complex musical and vocal arrangements. We can hear those influences in a lot of what we call progressive metal bands. For example, I really like “Blind Guardian’. But trying to go in that direction would require a time and close collaboration that we cannot afford because of distance and also because we are all busy with “real life” (job, house, family, etc.).

The process is somewhat democratic in the sense that we all have an influence on the performance and arrangements, but for the essentials, we strongly rely on Peter and Dave for the orientation of the music. Did I say that I trusted them blindly… hehe

On which elements in your songwriting would you say that you paid more attention while creating the songs for “Gather Darkness”?

That would be a question for Peter and Dave. But from my point of view, they tried to improve and perfect every single aspects of this album. If it were only of me, I would ask that the guitar sound be made a little more aggressive, just to add a bit of power hehe.

A tough question for you. Which of the album’s songs do you find as your finest? Also, it would be great to know, which of these songs are dear, and important, to you, in comparison to the rest of the tracklist. Please explain your pick

Surprisingly, I like “Gather Darkness” in its entirety. I never used to enjoy listening to my own albums, but in this case, I must admit that ‘Gather Darkness’ is part of my iPhone collection and that I never skip any of its songs.

But if I had to choose a few that are more meaningful to me, I would pick the ones that make me evolve as a vocalist: “Soil of the Dead”, “Call of the Watch” and “The Thaumaturge”.

In “Soil of the Dead”, I recorded a counterpoint for the first time. I was thrilled when Peter had sent me the demo for this song. I thought: “Cool!!! I will be able to experiment with various vocal arrangements”. At first, the counterpoint was supposed to have only four voices, but in the end, I decided to push the envelope a bit. I had in mind a Savatage song, “Chance”, which was released on the “Handful of Rain” album. I had a lot of fun recording that part, and I really like the result. Besides, this song has a 60’s-70’s aura (transition verse/bridge to chorus) that makes me like the song even more.

“Call of the Watch” is an extreme song that is intense and powerful. The voice needed to match this intensity. While I was recording, I was trying to put myself in a “Painkiller” (Judas Priest) mood, and I think the result is quite good.

As for “The Thaumaturge”, I think it is a complete song. It flirts with majesty, melody, power and magic. The vocals transition from really intense Dickinsonian verse lines to a very melodic chorus. Together, they sound awesome.

The first thing I thought to myself when I listened to the album was: “Damn, he sounds just like James Neal (ex-Malice), so frickin’ 80s man”. Your voice is still strong I’d tell you that. Have you been making an effort to maintain it or it plainly comes natural?

Thanks! I will consider any comparison with James Neil as a compliment. I would say it is a bit of both. When I started singing again for “Agents of Mystification”, it took me almost a year to get back in shape. I had to be patient. Rushing would have been a mistake. Now I sing often enough to be in “recording shape” but not enough to be in “touring shape”. So I think that I have a natural ability, but when you want to compete with the best, you need to invest lots of time and efforts, something that I will need to do if we ever were to go on tour.

I am positive that you are bound to support “Gather Darkness”, any plans to perform a special release show, and later a series of shows throughout Europe or the US?

Keep in mind that there are hundreds of good bands around the world and that metal music is, first and foremost, a business. I would say that North-America would be out of the question mainly for financial reasons. The whole band is in Sweden, and it would be too expensive to bring the whole band over and plan a profitable tour.

On the other hand, we have more chances of playing Europe. However, there are tons of good European bands, that promoters can get to play for peanuts. Plus, let’s face it, I will be 60 years old in a couple of years, and as far as I am concerned, there is no way I will leave with my backpack and hitchhike through Europe to go play clubs in front of a handful of people. Besides, I have a full-time career in technical translation, and in North-America, workers only have an average of two or three weeks of vacations per year. I am lucky to have five. But would I be willing to sacrifice the little personal time I have to go on tour in very rough conditions? Not really. I love playing, but I have many other interests. The only avenue possible at this point is the summer festivals. That would be fabulous.

Where do you see Assassin’s Blade in the coming years? What would you say are the key challenges of the band in nowadays market?

Hard to say. Challenges are numerous. It all depends on the way the album is received. Competition is fierce. You can count the good bands by the hundreds. IN the last 20 years, we have seen a sort of democratization of music production. Talented kids (and the not so talented too) can casually write, record and distribute music quite easily, while 40 years ago, only the bands willing to put all their eggs in the same basket had a chance of making it. The market is huge, but Assassin’s Blade’s market share is infinitely small compared to other bands. If metal fans were all filthy rich and did not have to earn a paycheck, musician could all live off their music. At the same time, streaming and file sharing is killing the business.

Let’s go off topic before wrapping up, It was found in several studies that Metal music can lower stress, and actually make a person better. Do you believe in these findings? Is it possible that the rage created within the music literally helps us to keep our mood in check?

Indeed, you are absolutely right. In this world where sources of frustration are legion, Metal music acts as a constructive outlet. Sports, martial arts or even arts in general are other forms of constructive outlets. Metal music is a very good way to channel anger and make sure no one is hurt along the way.

Speaking for myself, I had a shitty childhood. I was a shy kid who has been bullied, humiliated and beaten by other kids, while my alcoholic parents were too busy to care about what happened to me or to my younger brother and sister. The amount of injustice I was subjected to turned me into an angry child who, yet, wanted to be a good person. That anger will stay forever. All I can do is manage that anger and make sure it does not hurt anyone, including myself. Had I not played metal music, I might have become a violent asshole or a criminal, God knows.

Jacques, thank you so much for the interview, it was quite a privilege for me to have you. I wish you guys all the best, and release is highly promising.

Thanks to you Lior. It was a pleasure. Thank you for your patience and the best of luck. Your contribution is precious to bands like us. Kindest regards!

It was an honor sir, glad to be of service


 



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Edited 28 October 2020
 

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