Singer/guitarist Drew Riekman talks about the Vancouver group’s excellent new album Circuitous
Few bands in 2022 have blown my mind quite like Canada’s Blessed.
Their incredible second album, Circuitous, was released this past Friday via Flemish Eye to a bevy of critical accolades as the Vancouver quartet move beyond the realms of guitar-based rock to create a sound that thrives on the curiosity of sonic exploration.
The record was mixed by John Congleton (Swans, St. Vincent, Wye Oak) and mastered by Greg Obis (Alabaster Deplume, Cloud Nothings), yet comes across unlike anything either man has worked on in the past. Like their mainstream contemporaries The 1975 and The Mars Volta, Blessed base their songs in a standard convention for contemporary melody, but then shift deeper into elements of complexity as these eight new songs progress within the construct of their respective time frames. Like, at first you might get hints off, say, early Alan Parsons Project and even the mellower end of the Deftones, such as on tracks like “Trust,” “Anything” and “Person.” But then the implementation of their own syncopated sense of rhythm takes the music into wholly uncharted territory.
Blessed recorded Circuitous during winter 2020-2021 at Vancouver’s Rain City Recorders with Matt Roach and Emily Ryan. The group experimented with two different drum setups, eventually blending the two within a single song. The record builds on Blessed’s commitment to creativity, introducing more synthesizers, programming, MIDI, sequencers, and experimentation in arrangements.
They are a band who belongs in the same conversation as Radiohead and black midi in terms of their creativity within the confines of the rock idiom. What’s more, their music on Circuitous is further enhanced by working in collaboration with longtime associate, digital artist Nathan Donovan, who alongside partner Jacob Dutton translate the album into the visual realm via the creation of the boyish robot that graces the album cover and accompanying videos.
Rock & Roll Globe sent off some email questions to the Blessed camp about Circuitous and its place in the group’s evolution as one of the more adventurous rock acts to emerge in the last 10 years.
The group’s frontman, singer/guitarist Drew Riekman wrote us back. Here’s what he said.
What inspires the angularity in your sound?
I don’t know that it’s anything as overt as “x, y, and z”. Angularity is also a word that has come to represent a lot of different things, so it’s even difficult to pinpoint because it depends on what the interpretation is. At the core of the group, is an eclectic love of different music and a pull in many directions for what people see as the best vision for a song. The nature of operating in that fashion seems to inherently pull the music in an angular direction.
The material on Circuitous was culled from jam sessions. I’d love to hear more about these sessions and how this process differs from your earlier approaches to recording music?
In the infancy of any project, there’s a lot of sheepishness and getting to know one another, wanting to be malleable and wanting to be adaptable. You’re all trying to discover one another’s taste and what works for some and what doesn’t. As time moves on, we’ve realized that we do our best work together by throwing as many ideas around as possible and culling back rather than trying to have a singular unified vision out of the gate. Spending a couple hours just playing together without regard or direction frees you to find and get lost in grooves, riffs, or patterns that stick for everyone and build. I don’t know that we’ll necessarily stick to any pattern for writing or that it will be how the next record operates, but for the current creative space we’re in it seems to be what provides the most joy.
What inspired the increased use of synths and programming on Circuitous?
There was always a desire and interest to incorporate those elements, it’s that we didn’t have the capacity or knowledge when we were younger and forming the band. All of us have a deep appreciation for electronic music and seeing that reflected in what we’re creating is important to us. There’s also a limitation to the traditional two guitars, bass, and drum set up that you can try to overcome with weird pedals or plugins, but that sound you’re commonly trying to emulate is just a synthesizer. Why spend a bunch of money on fairly singular purpose guitar pedals when you could open a whole other avenue for sound?
VIDEO: Blessed “Anything”
What made you go with the great John Congleton to work on Circuitous?
John was at the top of the list of people we wanted to have mix the record. It felt important after spending so much time and effort recording the record with Matt and Emily of Rain City that we incorporated a second set of ears to mix from someone we respected and trusted. John was the first name that came to mind because of the variety of work he’s responsible for and what we felt is a fairly varied record. He’s not someone who I associate with a singular sound, and that was an avenue we felt would benefit the record, because it wouldn’t be put into a singular vision.
I would love to hear more about the robot featured on the album cover and the video for “Anything”. How did you and your collaborators Nathan Donovan and Jacob Dutton come up with him and what does he represent in your mind?
Nathan spoke briefly on the initial concept, stating “Originally, we proposed working with a doll or a pose-able action figure because the backbone of the narrative required the character to embody very specific, subtle and uncanny expressions. As the video developed we settled on robotics because it offered a higher fidelity model that provided more functional plasticity, which was essential in fleshing out our vision for the film. One of our first sketches was the android in this horribly awkward pose on the floor of this small windowless room, sprawled out as if it had been thrown to the ground with total disregard.”. This was further expanded upon by their friend Ariel who wrote better than I ever could the following “Driven by echoing, melancholy vocals; crisp, pounding basslines; asymmetrical math-y guitars; programmed drum machines and the occasional electronic flourish and arpeggiated motif, Blessed’s art-rock melodies create a sense of forward momentum, a forward longing that is hard to pin down. Nathan Donovan and Jacob Dutton’s music video for “Anything,” the Canadian band’s latest single, gives body to this unresolved tension through the journey of a boy-like robot driven by a fundamental instinct for self-preservation. Its operating software exists, seemingly, on a mini-disc; its face shows the ability for conflicting, contorted emotions; and its body is reminiscent of greige hospital machinery. Its design suggest nothing should go wrong, yet the android shows a strong desire to escape its programming.
In “Anything,” Donovan and Dutton create a maze of seamless corridors, hostile neon lights and blinding white paneling. Utmost banal, yet eerily empty, it’s a setup that recalls the robotic factory of Chris Cunningham’s music video for Björk’s “All Is Full of Love,” or the nether space occupied by Pixar’s iconic plastic lamp. There is willful desire, here, to call back to a pre-Youtube era of CG wizardry where nascent digital tools provided exciting possibilities for unsettling iconography. One easily imagines “Anything” on a cathodic tube, caught between two mind-melting ads for obsolete commodities – one’s zapping stopped by an android’s plight. The image immediately recall simpler days, while pointing to the future.
Colleen of Flemish Eye’s nephew has taken to calling him Frank despite us consciously choosing not to name the robot, which I love. But as for it’s representation, it’s what the viewer takes from it that matters most rather than an explicit narrative for us to give to others.
VIDEO: Blessed “Agoraphobia”
You recorded this album during a pretty tumultuous time in North America. Did any of the events that transpired in the United States inform the music on Circuitous at all?
Only in the sense that it’s inescapable to confront certain aspects of it. While I have a tendency to obfuscate in my lyrics a lot, I still feel this is the most glaringly personal and open record we’ve created yet. And it touches a lot on labour, which is an avenue I feel incredibly strongly about. Labour is an umbrella that fits a lot under it, which is why there’s multiple songs I feel comfortable saying touch on it at their core. But no, nothing is directly about any events in the United States as a singular event, but broadly speaking, it would be impossible I feel to make an introspective record without being affected by the current mechanisms of North American life.
What are the band’s plans in terms of touring in 2023?
There’s a time where I would say we’d be out for 100 shows, but it’s hard to say with the tumultuous nature of things currently and us being spread all over the country. We have ambition to finally make it overseas in 2023, I feel that we’ve promised a lot of people since 2019 that we’d make it over “next year”. Hopefully this is the actual fruition year. The only guarantee at this point would be Eastern Canada and the USA though sometime in the Spring. With the, maybe obvious, hope that we’ll add a lot more.