April 25, 2023

one song’s mid-70s Genesis vibes may stir memories of smoky stages, rows of landing lights, and follicly-challenged singers

The striking artwork gracing the cover of Redemption, the eighth and latest studio album from Québec progressive rock sextet Mystery, seems to mirror the feeling of hope that in 2023 we are finally climbing out of a dreary and trying few years, prompting new growth and with brighter days ahead. Looking back to the band’s last album Lies and Butterflies in 2018, it’s amazing to think of what we’ve all been through since. So the next chapter in the book of Mystery is more than welcome accompaniment to our coming out the other side.

Mystery looking very… mysterious
Photo by Denis Lefebvre

The band have been at it for over thirty years, but for inexplicable reasons haven’t ascended to the upper echelon of the crowded prog rock world. Sure, they have a loyal and supportive fan base, but they don’t seem to be recognized on a grander scale as often as some of their contemporaries (and certainly far less than the old warhorses from the 1970s). But on paper, that shouldn’t be. A quick glance at the most popular prog review websites reveals that ratings of Mystery’s albums hover almost entirely around the four star range. That’s a remarkably consistent catalogue, especially when their albums don’t have fifty years of ‘classic’ status helping to prop those numbers up.

Band founder and guitarist Michel St-Père has said that when it comes to his favourite prog rock, he’s more an Asia guy than a King Crimson guy. And that checks out, considering that slick melodies and direct themes take priority over pyrotechnic virtuosity and cerebral concepts in Mystery’s music. But the band maintains a high level of quality across the board and in the eyes of their fans, rarely disappoint. They know how to craft an effective melody and wring as much from it as possible.

St-Père likes a full, rich sound and crystal-clear sonics. Producing and mixing the album himself, he strikes a good balance between instruments and allows the powerful vocals of Jean Pageau to shine. A greedier musician might take the opportunity to showcase his own playing above all else – and he is a great guitarist – but St-Père has been around long enough to know what best serves the music, and his choices are sensible ones. After all, Mystery are the sum of their six parts, not one star player and five backing musicians. The new album’s opening track Behind the Mirror was revealed way back in the fall of 2022 and met with instant acclaim from fans. No surprise there, as it’s an attractive piece that not only sets the tone for the album but perfectly encapsulates the band’s overall vibe; the kind of concise example you might play to a curious newcomer.

The multi-talented Jean Pageau
Photo by Denis Lefebvre

The strongest songs on Redemption are among the best in the Mystery canon. The compelling title track is built from a solemn guitar part that blooms into a powerful and emotional piece with impassioned vocals from Pageau, who sounds truly inspired with every note (I don’t think the guy is capable of phoning it in). The song is anchored by spectacular drumming from Jean-Sébastien Goyette, who balances flair with power, and fleshed out with crying guitar leads from Sylvain Moineau. The Beauty and the Least goes deeper with a more expansive arrangement, straddling AOR and traditional prog rock in typical Mystery fashion. A commanding instrumental section features François Fournier’s rumbling Taurus pedals, swelling keyboards from Antoine Michaud, and huge mid-70s Genesis vibes that may stir memories of smoky stages, rows of landing lights, and follicly-challenged singers (with apologies to both bands’ front men in that regard).

Michel St-Père
Photo by Denis Lefebvre

Though St-Père wrote the lion’s share of the songs, two other Mysterons put pen to paper as well. While there’s nothing revolutionary about Pageau’s ballad Every Note, it’s a pleasant and heartfelt love song that doesn’t stretch into anything it shouldn’t, making for a welcome breather from the intensity of the two larger-scale tracks it’s positioned between. Pageau also accents the piece with some lovely flute, another ingredient he brought to the table upon joining the band three albums ago. Redemption‘s other ballad is the quirkier (and considerably longer) My Inspiration, which if edited down to a more commercially palatable arrangement could be a big radio hit – if we still lived in a world where radio had a shred of credibility, that is.

The otherworldly Pearls and Fire opens with distant war noises amid atmospheric keyboards and tasty cymbal work. Pageau recounts a moving tale of a troubled boy who finally finds his place in the world as a soldier with tragic consequences. Again there’s a vibrant and dramatic instrumental middle packed with soaring, majestic synths and unison lines as Moineau and St-Père skillfully trade axe leads. The chilling closing line sums up the mood of the piece:

These young boy's tears
now shine among the heroes
A new star appears
This young boy’s dreams were made of 
Pearls and fire

Penultimate track Homecoming, the shortest on the album, occupies a position often reserved for ‘filler’, so it was much to my surprise that it became my favourite of the new batch (and that’s with tough competition). Composed by Michaud – who also plays acoustic and electric guitars – the song seems to allude to the brevity of life, and its simple message is driven home by a beautiful solo from St-Père while Pageau’s echoed ‘goodbye’s swirl around the emotionally-charged music. Fingers crossed we see a bit more writing from Michaud in the future, because this one is a winner.

Jean and Sylvain eyeing a blonde in the crowd?
Photo by Denis Lefebvre

The album’s centerpiece is surely the 19 minute closing opus Is This How the Story Ends?, one of St-Père’s typically dynamic and massive-sounding prog epics. Solos abound, rhythms lock in tight, moods and tempos shift, there’s engaging guitar and keyboard interplay… and a whole lot of words to sink your teeth into. The journey of this track gradually works toward an uplifting tone, but like many Mystery songs the subject matter remains serious and absorbing. My prediction is that a fair few fans will have a new favourite Mystery epic once they hear this outstanding finale.

In many ways, Redemption is the logical follow-up to Lies and Butterflies, which in turn was a natural answer to its predecessor, and so on. It’s bountiful with rocking tunes, catchy earworms, gripping drama, and impressive songcraft, and though I know it raises suspicions, there’s genuinely very little to find fault with here. Despite mixing obvious influences (like Rush, Genesis, Marillion, Styx, Asia, and Supertramp), the band have gradually honed their own sound, and thankfully Redemption does not suffer from Heard It All Before syndrome (an unfortunately growing problem among modern bands too numerous to name). Mystery don’t ignore their impressive past, but they don’t rely on it either. They continue to build on the strengths of previous works, and their success lies in knowing how to grab their listener’s attention and – more importantly – hold it.