INSTRUMENTAL BANDS have a tendency to sometimes get wrapped up in themselves. This all has its place, of course, but it comes at the cost of losing some swagger and recklessness. Portland power trio Blesst Chest has one foot planted in prog-inspired instrumentalism, and the other kicking in the air with rock ’n’ roll abandon.
A recent performance at Bunk Bar with local krautrock band Møtrik was a perfectly boozy mix of disciplined twists and turns and loosey-goosey garage rock. I use the word “boozy” because that’s what I’m doing with the band pre-show during a good-timin’, tangent-loaded interview.
“We’re a fucking rock band—that’s what I think,” guitarist Jay Winebrenner says declaratively as we try and get to the bottom of Blesst Chest.
“Prog rock leaning” has been used to describe them—most notably by Pavement/Jicks frontman Stephen Malkmus on the band’s bio—but “a fucking rock band” is probably most accurate. Blesst Chest’s debut Wish We Were There, the inaugural release on the newly formed XRAY Records, is full of Winebrenner’s unorthodox, knotty guitar bits tangling with Darrell Bourque’s sturdy bass lines and drummer Jake Morris’ tight, powerful drumming.
Songs like “T-Boned in the Daewoo” and “Song for White Lion” get busy, but Blesst Chest also have the good sense to ride a killer riff when they find it. They also know it’s best not to wear out your welcome—Wish We Were There’s 11 instrumentals clock in at just over a half hour.
“When we first started playing we wanted to take prog stuff and turn it into two-minute songs,” says Morris. Winebrenner still thinks the songs are too long.
Blesst Chest came together around five years ago. Morris and Bourque’s band the Joggers were coming to an end (Morris also played with Malkmus and the Jicks, replacing drummer Janet Weiss), as was Winebrenner’s long-running band 31Knots. The circumstances were just right.
“The three of us would often talk about starting a band while hanging out at our local night spot,” explains Bourque. “It always seemed like tipsy, optimistic fantasy talk—bar talk. Although the idea of us playing together made sense and there was nothing far-fetched about it.”
Blesst Chest eased into things, recording songs, scrapping them, as more songs emerged from jam sessions. The band finally laid down the 11 tracks on Wish We Were There with Cribs bassist Gary Jarman live on one session. (Another session for overdubs took place a few months later.) The end result is a record that explores the outer limits while maintaining a ramshackle energy of their live show.
The idea of adding vocals has never occurred to the members (“They’re necessary in a lot of bands, but not here,” says Winebrenner), although they joke that for their third record they might go with the title Blesst Chest Sings. For the time being they’re quite content being the mutant rock band they are.
“I’m not sure what prog rock is exactly, but I think of it as something more complex than a Ramones song, or even a Led Zeppelin song,” Bourque says. “We don’t get more complex than that, so that makes us a rock band, right?”