“We did not announce he was leaving as we hoped he would come back… It was very disappointing - we ended up thinking we would have to go for second best”: How Mystery moved on from Benoit David

(Image credit: Unicorn Digital)

Michel St-Père is obviously a very happy man, thrilled to have finally released Mystery’s latest album, Redemption – which, despite the global events of the last three years, has exceeded all his expectations in terms of pre-sales and rave reviews.

“The comments about it are all positive so far and the pre-sale went really well. It’s been our best ever, so I think the fans did not forget about us during the past four years,” enthuses Mystery’s founder, guitarist, composer and producer. “We’re very happy about this, especially as we have sold a lot of the records in the UK.”

From beginning to end, Redemption is another Mystery masterclass in how to channel influences from classic British prog and US AOR, elevating them into panoramic symphonic soundscapes, full of moments that catch the breath and capture the imagination. Though much of the album was written and half-recorded before the pandemic, the enforced hiatus gave St-Père time to reflect, his observations providing the overarching theme for both the title track and epic closer Is This How the Story Ends?

St-Père recalls: “The band were touring and it was going really well. There were many concerts prepared in 2020 – but all of them were cancelled so we lost track of what we were doing. We also lost the point of rushing to do the new album, so we put it aside and released the Blu-ray concert Caught In The Whirlwind Of Time in 2020 instead. Meanwhile, I continued working on the album, making the new songs.

“When we started touring again, we went to the Midsummer Prog Festival in the Netherlands last year. It was there we decided to get the new album out. It was like kicking our butt to get it finished!”

St-Père wrote six of the album’s eight compositions; the other two – love song Every Note and the airy Homecoming – were contributed by vocalist/flautist/frontman Jean Pageau and keyboardist/guitarist Antoine Michaud respectively. One song completed before Covid was Pearls And Fire and, as St-Père explains, it was a fan’s suggestion via social media that gave him the idea for the history lesson it tells. “I knew the song was about war, but I didn’t know where it would go. This fan said to me, ‘You go to the Netherlands very often and call it your second home. You know there was a Canadian soldier called Léo Major who saved a Dutch town during World War II? You should write a song about him.’ I went on the internet and started investigating, and I said, ‘Okay, that’s going to fit perfectly with the song.’”

For all its sonic loveliness, themes that Redemption covers include migration in hard-hitting opener Behind The Mirror, inspired by the heartbreaking photograph of a tiny Syrian boy’s lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach. Beauty And The Least is another morality tale about a prostitute looking for love and yearning for another life. Is This How The Story Ends? embraces all Mystery’s dramatic, intense storytelling, but St-Père kept his options open about how it should appear on record.

“There is something special about this song because it could have been in two parts, the first to open the album and the longer part to close it,” he explains. “In the end, we decided to leave it as one long song. It’s going to be a fun song to play live! It talks about everything that happened involving Covid, thinking how everything might have been finished because of it. I put it in terms of a train passing by: you either jump on it or miss it. There’s a question [implied] at the end: ‘Have I missed the train, or have I arrived?’ It’s not predicting the end – it’s there to make us think that the end could come at any time.”

St-Père is also heartened that the current band line-up has remained stable for six years, each band member making a significant contribution to the musical arrangements before he Mystery-stamps them with his meticulous production. Astonishingly, it’s now nearly a decade since Mystery enlisted Pageau. You can’t talk about all things Mysteron with St-Père without asking him about the well-publicised chain of events that led to his arrival. That was when in 2008, Yes recruited their erstwhile vocalist, Benoît David, who was previously with a Yes tribute band. The Canadians had to work their own schedule around when David toured and recorded with the real Yes.

In the end, illness forced David to quit Yes in 2012, then Mystery the following year. “It’s a sad story. I have not seen Benoît for about four years and when we last spoke back then, he wasn’t making music: he had to start his life all over again.” Ironically, St-Père says, David’s presence in Yes meant Mystery got some extra recognition when fans started seeking out their music.

They kept David’s departure from Mystery a secret for a year: “We did not announce Benoît was leaving the band as we hoped he would come back. It took us a good year to find Jean, who is a very charismatic singer and really tells the stories of the songs. We tried other singers, and it sounded like bad karaoke nights. It was very disappointing for the band; we ended up thinking we would have to go for second best.

“Jean had been in Styx and Saga tribute bands, which is strange as I think I saw all the videos of Canadian tribute bands but never saw one of him in them anywhere!”

St-Père also runs Mystery’s record label Unicorn Digital, which, over recent years, has scaled back its commitments with other bands: “It is very hard to work with the newer artists as it costs a lot of money to put out an album, so the investment is not always worth it. There are many good bands out there who have some difficulty reaching their audiences. Nowadays, they don’t believe the help a label can give them. Often, when the younger bands get in contact, it’s because they are desperate so it does not start the relationship very well.”

One of the bands on his label are fellow Canadians Huis. St-Père has started working with them on their new album, which he hopes will get a release later this year. There will now be a lull in the Mysteron calendar until later this year when they play Progstock in the USA and a couple of shows in Canada.

St-Père has noticed that Canadian audiences are increasing on a par with those in Europe. “People tend to forget that Canada is a very big country with a lot less people. That’s why we’ve never played Vancouver before! Sometimes, bands from Europe contact me to ask if I will help them with a tour of Canada – and I always say no!”

As for coming back to the UK, St-Père hints a return is likely, their last visit being in 2019 with a one-off date in Norwich. “It is always fun for us to go there, but the paperwork and visas make everything complicated and more expensive for us. It’s funny in a way because this has always been the case for us going to the UK and now, I see all these European bands complaining about the difficulties getting the visas to go to the UK and vice versa for UK artists. It makes me think that nothing has changed for us.

“The pandemic stopped many of our touring plans, but we hope to be back soon. It depends on the offers we get. The story is definitely not over.”

Alison Reijman

A life long prog fan, Alison trained as a journalist in Portsmouth after which she worked on local newspapers for more nearly 15 years. Her remit included compiling a weekly entertainments page, writing album and gig reviews. Alongside her career in journalism and PR, she regularly writes reviews, interviews and blogs for prog websites and magazines. She has also contributed features to band tour programmes. Alison’s writings helped her to be one of three winners of a national competition in 2013 to find inspiring women in their 50s. Alison still works as a PR coordinator and is a regular gig-goer.