Blessed’s Salt is a brilliant exercise in precision, created by a band that’s thoroughly committed to refining their approach to song craft.
More often than not, the hardest part of critically engaging with a record is trying to find a way in. I dread this part of the process. Instead of sitting back and simply enjoying these records, they become something you have to twist and rend into a focused perspective. Like fitting a square peg into a round hole, this exercise can often feel pointless and unendingly frustrating.
The sky eventually stops falling, though. And when it does, it’s a little easier to see that this frustration speaks to an essential virtue of the critical exercise: the reciprocation of effort. After all, it’s bloody hard to write good music and it’s just as difficult to work up the stones to put it out there for consumption by people who largely don’t give a shit. More than an opportunity to sound off and/or show off, a review should stand as a product of true engagement with a piece of art. It’s easy to like or dislike something; it takes true effort to convey why that’s the case. On that note, the sustained effort needed to parse out my feelings about Salt, the first full-length from Abbotsford, BC’s Blessed, feels commensurate to the work and care that evidently went into piecing together its eight tracks.
Salt is a labyrinthian, yet brilliant, tangle of esoteric post-punk that yields no ground to the lazy ear. Like a slow spring thaw, the gifts reveal themselves incrementally. This is nothing new for this band; in a review of their 2017 EP II, I mentioned that Blessed’s work ethic as a band is echoed in what they ask of the listener: put in the work with these songs, truly listen, and the rewards will come. And while that statement still holds water, the payoff is notably different this time around. Where Blessed’s past releases both showcased and leaned on the band’s maddeningly precise musicianship, Salt reveals a band thoroughly committed to refining their approach to song craft.
For a band that’s only ever released singles and two (albeit lengthy) EPs, creating an album’s worth of engaging, cohesive material is an entirely different challenge. In this way, Salt is not so much a reinvention as it is a recalibration. Blessed still showcase undeniable technical skills, but there is a far greater focus on atmosphere, arrangement, emotion, and pacing from start to finish. It’s there right from the opening pairing of “Rolled in Glass” into “Thought”. The opener combines uneasy eighth note pulses (that vaguely recall a certain Jonny Greenwood film score), punishing rhythms, shimmering textures, and beautiful guitar lines into a song that builds but never breaks. We then fall right into “Thought” — the taut, driving, verse/chorus/verse/chorus single that’s among the simpler songs (structurally speaking) the band has composed thus far. The tension between the two songs works incredibly well. Taken together, they act as a perfect primer for the rest of Salt’s construction. Throughout the record, Blessed display a total commitment to balancing control and contrast. The energy and emotion often shifts on a dime from song to song and — in the case of album high points “Zealot”, “Purpose and Conviction”, and the stunning polyrhythmic closer “Caribou” — mid-song, but nothing is done on a whim; every single note is placed and performed with the utmost care to serve the arrangement.
Sonically, Salt is the most dynamic and methodical the band has ever sounded. After the refined studio polish of their previous EPs, the recordings sound refreshingly organic this time around. The use of synths, textures, and atmospherics also adds a completely new dimension to Blessed’s sound that’s best demonstrated on “Anchor” and “Disease”. Whereas the former is an unsettling industrial-tinged deep-cut that’s a significant left turn from anything the band has done in the past, the latter is a pulverizing new-wavey dirge that features a gorgeous interplay of synths of guitars. “Disease” also features vocalist Drew Riekman’s most affecting performance. On a record where he employs numerous styles and voices, Riekman’s vocals on Salt’s penultimate track stand out for their mournful simplicity.
All told, Salt is a document of growth. This growth doesn’t pertain to the development of musical chops or band cohesion, as both have defined Blessed’s past releases. Instead, this growth has to do with songwriting. After all, technical proficiency and good songwriting are mutually exclusive talents, and “making it look easy” can often result in the most boring music imaginable. It takes true effort to utilize that talent in the right context in order to make something interesting, affecting, and human. Salt is Blessed’s best work because you can so clearly hear their relentless commitment to developing their craft along these lines. It’s a reminder that artists are often at their best only after they’ve been humbled by their chosen medium. Even for a band with a bottomless bag of technical tricks, songwriting is still a vocation that’s continuously pursued yet never perfected.