The cover art for iii, the upcoming EP from Canadian art-rock band Blessed, depicts a wall of wooden blocks, all different shapes, jumbled messily and precariously high against a softly-coloured background. It’s an image that captures Blessed at their most essential: experimental, asymmetrical, and interdependent, all the more remarkable for their marriage of those three qualities. Due out February 19 on Flemish Eye, the EP’s four tracks expand on Blessed’s already-idiosyncratic vision: cavernous post-punk electronics and measured drum work pave under guitarwork that trips and sways from chiming and sunny, to serrated and snarling, to frigid and stiff. Vocalist Drew Riekman’s lithe tenor flickers in and out across tracks, an extra texture rather than a spotlit focus.
Blessed have released just one full-length record—their taut, spring-loaded 2019 debut Salt—and yet they’ve arranged themselves around a sound and aesthetic that is fully formed and potent, couched in a quiet reverence for their community in Abbotsford, a small, conservative agricultural city in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley.
Riekman says that like the EP’s compositions, the artwork for iii (created by longtime friend and digital artist Nathan Levasseur) reflects his own experience of anxiety, which at its worst has confined him to his home for months at a time. “I really struggled with agoraphobia when I was younger, and still do to this day,” he says. Often, a salve for these experiences is community and collaboration. Riekman says these give a “feeling of the world getting smaller.”
Blessed—Riekman, Reuben Houweling, Jake Holmes, and Mitchell Trainor—created the new EP in step with this logic. The band self-produced the record at Vancouver’s Rain City Recorders, with vocals tracked at friends’ houses across Abbotsford. Riekman credits the previous generation of DIY artists in the Fraser Valley with fostering a sense of local responsibility and solidarity that Blessed aims to perpetuate. That’s part of what keeps him in the city; he and Blessed attend city council meetings, book all-ages shows in a garage downtown, and share resources with younger artists learning the ropes of recording, touring, and grant application processes.
“If we leave now, are we abandoning the future us?” Riekman reasons.
Greg Obis (Stuck) mastered the record at Chicago Mastering Service, but for mixing services, the band strayed from conventional rock record ideology. Rather than aim for one uniform mix, they pursued four separate ones: Corin Roddick (Purity Ring) on opener “Sign”; John McEntire (Tortoise) on “Structure”; Graham Walsh (Holy Fuck) on “Centre”; and Riekman on closer “Movement.” The result is four tracks with distinctly different palettes and trajectories.
“We looked at a lot of hip-hop records and were like, ‘Why are rock bands always trying to have consistency?’” asks Riekman. “Why do we care so much about consistency? If it’s art made by us, the consistency is us. For us, working with a community is probably the best aspect of creating art outside of making the art itself.”
“Sign” opens on monastic organs and a drum machine’s gentle rhythm before guitars swell and recede into a darkened post-punk churn, punctuated with martial guitar dives and morose piano. “Structure” stirs awake with a pulsing guitar line and Riekman’s perfectly monotone drone: “You don’t have to enact it/As long as you listen.” The track picks at the frustration of performative action and allyship, failings that Riekman observes to varying degrees in himself and his community. “Finding the right words to say doesn’t produce actionable change in your community,” he says.
“Centre” clangs to life with a driving, percussive frenzy that relents only once it’s eclipsed the five-minute mark with a dizzying, white-knuckle climax. “Movement” sews up the EP with calm waves of guitars, keys, and thudding drums, Riekman’s grainy, distant mix juxtaposed against the previous track’s clear-eyed chaos.
Besides pursuing a new way of conceptualizing a record’s sonic characteristics, Blessed’s eclectic approach offers encouragement to the young vanguard of artists coming up in the isolated Fraser Valley: we did this here, and you can, too. After all, they’re just a group of individuals who realized they could do something more if they worked together.