By Jerry Lucky:
The Canadian French speaking province of Quebec has always been partial to the progressive rock genre. From the genre’s earliest days bands from England have always received a warm welcome there. As to why that is, it’s hard to say. Perhaps it’s some ingrained European musical consciousness, or perhaps it’s because they work very hard to retain and foster their own musical culture which happens to be rich in the classical, folk, jazz and rock genres. Who knows for sure, but it should not be surprising to see most of Canada’s progressive rock bands hail from Quebec. One of those bands is Mystery.
The band was founded by multi-instrumentalist, producer and writer Michel St-Père, who was 17 at the time, working as a sound engineer in a recording studio. Raised on a musical diet of rock music it wasn’t long before the band Rush captured his attention quickly followed by the music of Yes and Genesis. This eclectic musical stew would forever influence his future musical direction. His first serious musical project was a band that was going to be called Century, that was until they discovered a band in France going by the same name, who’d just released a recording. It was back to the drawing board. After a night of frustration throwing out name after name, it was the girlfriend of then keyboardist Sylvain Deharhais who suggested Mystery and the name stuck.
Mystery started life 1986, and as with most bands in their early days a stable line-up was hard to come by as members came and went. During this time St-Père with the help of his father took to building a recording studio and studying music recording and production. Members continued to come and go and it wasn’t until 1990 that the band membership stabilized. A demo was created with the hope of securing a major label deal. It did generate interest on the part of some record labels who suggested the band might be the next Yes but in the end no deals came through. As a result, St-Père’s father suggested they should control their own destiny and release the music independently which they eventually would do.
The band’s first self-titled 5-song collection was released in 1992 and the band consisted of six-members… Michel St-Père (electric and acoustic guitars), Stéphane Perreault (drums & percussion), Benoît Dupuis (keyboards), Raymond Savoie (vocals), Gary Savoie (lead vocals) and Richard Addison (bass). The recording hits the mark and puts Mystery in the public eye for the first time.
Then tragically the band’s drummer Stéphane Perreault would lose the use of both legs later that year to a debilitating illness. For Perreault this experience would inspire a greater determination to overcome the challenge and he became one of the first to perform from a wheelchair. While he developed the new techniques required to take into account his new condition the band was put on hold and members went off to do other things. St-Père and Savoie retreated to the studio over the summer of 1993 to record demos for an additional 20 songs which they added to the existing 25 songs the band already had “in the can.” Many of these songs or parts of these songs would come to see the light of day on future recordings.
The summer of 1994 was taken up performing live throughout the province of Quebec, honing their skills on stage in the live environment. Later in the year the band started recording the material for their first full length CD. By this time the band was made up of Michel St-Père (electric and acoustic guitars, synthesizers), Stéphane Perreault (drums, programming, synthesizers & percussion), Benoît Dupuis (keyboards), Raymond Savoie (vocals), Gary Savoie (lead vocals), Richard Addison (bass) and Michel Painchaud (classical and acoustic guitars). Being a band full-time can be a challenging task so it should be surprising that as the recording sessions came to a close both Dupuis and Painchaud chose to leave.
During the recording process, it was decided that rather than looking for a label to release their music, it may be easier to create their own. The challenge of promoting the band fell to St-Père. This was in the early days of the internet and with no one jumping out of the bushes to sign the band, major labels being rather conservative in many respects; St-Père opted to focus on developing Unicorn Records as a means of getting the band exposure and product in the hands of fans. Thus Unicorn Records was born and the first release appropriately was the band’s new CD entitled, Theatre of the Mind in 1996.
The album contained many of the elements in rudimentary form that would come to make up the band’s later sound; the intricate acoustic guitar work, the keyboard interplay, flutes and complex arrangements. Inevitably it also displayed a nineties AOR sensibility that in some respects held the progressive side back. None-the-less the album received great reviews and the band started to get notices outside of Canada as a number of internet based progressive rock radio stations started exposing the band’s music to the growing prog fan base around the world.
Following the recording of Theatre of the Mind, bassist, Richard Addison decided to leave. His replacement turned out to be Patrick Bourque who’d already played on one track on the album and so was familiar with the band’s musical approach. The band having been on the road and in the studio is much tighter now.
In May 1998, Mystery would release their third and most progressive recording yet, entitled Destiny? and as part of the band’s expanding career it was released not only Unicorn but also licensed to one progressive rock’s largest prog labels Musea, based in France. Having seen the departure of both Dupuis and Painchaud, the band was now down to a four-piece made up of Gary Savoie (lead and background vocals), Michel St-Père (electric guitars, 6 & 12 string acoustic guitars, classical guitar and synthesisers), Patrick Bourque (fretted and fretless bass) and Steve Gagné (drums). Destiny? was the first album where St-Père brought in additional musicians and voice talent to help execute his creative vision. It also marked the departure of original drummer Perrault who would go on to focus on his graphic design career, designing the next Mystery album cover before taking his life.
The reviews started coming in and they were good. The band was gaining momentum within the progressive rock community and the music they were creating was being well received. However all was not well in the Mystery family. Tensions were rising within the band and cracks were beginning to show as some members weren’t convinced the Progressive Rock direction was the way to go and might in fact be holding the band back from greater success in the mainstream media. Ironically one of the one’s most vocal about the band’s direction was lead vocalist Savoie, ironic since many of the reviews coming in hailed him as one of the best progressive rock vocalists on the scene at the time. Still Destiny? was getting great reviews from the prog magazines all of which indicated to St. Père that musically this was the direction he wanted to take the band. So with members leaving it seemed like a good time to take a break and put Mystery on hold.
To some degree this marked the end of a chapter for the band, and as the band started to work on new material that would become their fourth CD, long-time vocalist Gary Savoie officially announced his departure. At this same time the Unicorn label was garnering so much attention from bands around the world, demos were arriving daily. The first signing to the label was local band Spaced Out followed quickly by Hamadryad and then the first non-Canadian band Xinema. From those three signings the label has grown to over 50 artists and dozens of CD’s, a good many of them home-grown Canadian progressive rock bands. But that’s another story.
The change in personnel, the label promotion and writing new material had all contributed to a delay in a new Mystery album. So it was decided the easiest way to keep the band in the public eye would be to release some of the band’s earlier material. Returning to the music scene in 2000, Mystery released a compilation CD entitled At The Dawn of a New Millenium collecting much of the band’s early, more progressive material. The remastered material from the band’s first three albums, proved to be a great reminder to old and new fans of the band’s musical potential and a fitting closure to that chapter of the band’s musical career.
The start of a new millennium would mark the start of a renewed and reinvigorated Mystery although it would take considerable time for all the pieces to fall into place. Savoie’s replacement turned out to be a vocalist by the name of Benoit David who’d been fronting a Yes tribute band called Close to the Edge. St. Père had met up with David two years earlier. Little did either know their paths would cross again in such dramatic fashion.
With the Unicorn Digital label seeing growing success, St. Père had spent the previous five years promoting the ever expanding list of artists who’d flocked to the label. The growing progressive rock community was becoming increasingly hungry for new music and the label was able to provide a wide range of music to satisfy the many tastes. At the same time music was being written for the next Mystery album which would ultimately appear in 2007.
Entitled Beneath the Veil of Winter’s Face this would be the first for vocalist Benoit David and would feature a further slimmed down band consisting of Michel St-Père (electric & acoustic guitars, bass & keyboards), Steve Gagné (drums) and Patrick Bourque (bass on 5 & 8). Perhaps due in part to the extended time it took to complete the album, it boasts a very complete and polished sound. The compositions are long and well developed rich in symphonic textures and lush instrumentation. To enhance stylistic diversity two additional bassists were brought in to perform. Antoine Fafard added his mark on three tracks while Benoît Pépin performed on three others. Sadly the band’s prime bassist Bourque who’d been living in Nashville and simultaneously performing with a band called Emerson Drive committed suicide only months after the album’s release. He’d been with Mystery for almost 10 years and his death was quite a blow.
Beneath the Veil of Winter’s Face would go on to become a fan and critic’s favorite garnering “Top 10 Best of” status on many prog related websites, radio shows and magazines. This was a more polished Mystery, firmly entrenched in the symphonic prog style and the new CD became the band’s biggest selling disc to date, sales that would continue to climb in the months ahead. As the band were preparing to start on their next album. David got the call; few expect to receive; “would he like to join Yes on tour?” Seeing a small window of opportunity he jumped at the opportunity and would eventually juggle his time between both bands. For its part Mystery was also having opportunities come its way such as being asked to appear live at the Montreal Progressive Rock Festival in 2009 performing with seasoned veterans Saga. Two other live shows gave the band even more time back on the live scene to perform for their fans.
All of this activity would eventually lead up to the next Mystery album entitled One Among the Living released in 2010. Down to three core members; Benoît David (vocals), Michel St-Père (electric & acoustic guitars, bass & keyboards) and Steve Gagné (drums). The guest musicians were of the highest calibre including Daryl Stuermer (guitar), Oliver Wakeman (keyboards), John Jowitt (bass), Antoine Fafard (bass), Claire Vezina (vocals) and Richard Lanthier. The compositions included many new pieces as well as reworking’s of some pieces written many years before but held back for the right moment. In addition David’s involvement took a leap forward as he contributed significantly to at least two of the compositions. The band was on a roll as the critical response was overwhelmingly positive.
Continuing to look for opportunities to perform in a live setting Mystery found themselves on stage three more times in 2010 including being invited to play the opening night at the 2010 edition of the “Right of Spring” music festival known as RoSfest at the Majestic Theatre in Gettysburg. These live events were scheduled at times where David’s involvement with Yes allowed. Even though Mystery weren’t performing live much they relished every opportunity to get in front of fans. The band’s fan exposure was growing and David’s involvement with Yes wasn’t hurting. In fact it was just the opposite. As fans went to see Yes and hear David sing, many would in turn discover his link to Mystery and start listening to their music as well. The Mystery fan base was growing ever larger.
As it turned out, health issues would cause David to take a required break from his vocal duties with Yes and this would open up even more time for greater involvement with Mystery’s new album entitled The World is a Game released in 2012. The band was now down to Michel St-Père (guitars, keyboards) and Benoît David (lead vocals) and to support the sound they enlisted Antoine Fafard (bass, additional acoustic guitars), Nick D'Virgilio (drums) and Marilène Provencher-Leduc (flute). The album was a shining example of symphonic prog perfection as the years of performing and producing came together to produce a stunning set of compositions.
With a new album gaining rave reviews it was agreed to assemble a live band consisting of both David and St-Père along with touring members Benoît Dupuis (keyboards), François Fournier (bass guitars), Sylvain Moineau (guitars) and Jean-Sébastien Goyette (drums). With a touring band in place, 2013 would prove to be a year of much travel with Mystery performing live monthly and for the first time outside of Canada. Concert dates took them to Mexico, the Netherlands and the UK.
There is an old adage that says, “That which doesn’t kill you, only makes you stronger,” and certainly that would apply to Mystery. Their past may have been full of personnel upheaval and sadness and yet out of all that turmoil Mystery have evolved into one of the symphonic progressive rock genres leading bands. They have gone from strength to strength and continue to gain fans around the world with their classic sound and yet as they enter their 28th year of existence they still have much to prove and more music to write. Clearly the story is far from over.