It was a little bizarre for Mark Belanger, singer-guitarist for Portland metal band Pigboat, being at the four rock shows held one weekend last summer at Geno’s, the Asylum and the Big Easy, all in Portland. Those shows featured a who’s who of Maine metal and heavy bands, and all the proceeds from admission went to help pay for the costs of Belanger’s cancer treatment, after he was diagnosed with lymphoma in April 2013. Those shows — dubbed the “Relentless Belanger” series — were wonderful, of course, but they were weird for Belanger, a fixture of the Portland metal scene for nearly 20 years.
“It was like being at my own funeral, except I’m not dead,” said the Hampden native, now 43. “It was the kind of thing people do for a funeral, but I was in the audience. Totally weird. They were awesome shows but man, it was strange.”
Fortunately, Belanger kicked cancer’s ass. Once treatment was over, he got back to the thing he’d been working on for over a year: finishing up Pigboat’s new album. That album came out last week at a record release party at Geno’s with the bands Sylvia and Mindset X, with a title different from the one they’d planned originally. One that’s much more appropriate, considering Belanger’s painful but victorious battle last year.
“Distracted by Adventures in Health Care,” produced by Mallett Brothers Band guitarist Wally Wenzel, is just the third album from Pigboat. They’ve been around for ten years, forming after the band Broken Clown broke up in 2002. Belanger happily admits that he is the slow one out of the band’s three members; bassist Ed Porter (also in the band Covered in Bees) and drummer Brian Chaloux (also in Murcielago) will have their parts recorded in mere days, but Belanger will spend months tinkering with tone and adding new layers of guitar. It also didn’t help that he took a year or so off, spending more time in hospitals than the studio.
“I’m not a perfectionist, but I do like to keep adding things. It’s easier to take stuff away then add stuff before it’s too late,” he said. “One of the things I’ve always loved about records are those little things that are buried in the mix, that you’d never have noticed until you heard it on headphones one time.”
Pigboat is sludgy, heavy, carefully crafted rock, with a distinctive groove running through it that lends them them the stoner metal genre marker. “Distracted” plays very much in the same vein as the band’s other two albums, “Nothing’s Ever Finished” from 2006 and “Float” from 2009; big rhythm section, big guitar and big, dirty, growly vocals.
Though it might take him a while to get an album recorded and released, Belanger’s been playing heavy rock for most of his life — starting when he was a kid, growing up in the Bangor area.
“At the time, it wasn’t a good place to be for someone that wanted to play original music. It was all cover bands, except for at the Penny Post in Old Town,” said Belanger, referring to the club, a bastion of live, original music in eastern Maine in the 90s. “Portland was where all that was happening, and it’s still true today… no matter what kind of music you like, you will find someone in Portland who is playing it.”
“Distracted” was mostly recorded before Belanger received his diagnosis, so its eight songs don’t really bear the mark of his experience battling cancer. Going forward, however, he’s a changed man — but only slightly, be it as as a friend, a musician, or as the guy selling guitars at Guitar Grave on Congress Street in Portland, a job he’s had since 2009.
“I would say I have a gentler outlook on life now. I’m not as quick to anger,” he said. “But I definitely don’t want to be the Lance Armstrong of Portland metal. I don’t want to be the poster boy. I don’t think my approach to music is really going to change at all. I wouldn’t want it to.”