I know very little about Winnepeg, aside from the fact that yer maun from Venetian Snares apparently has a low opinion of the place, but his response seems not a million miles from the sentiments underlying KEN mode’s work. NULL comes a relatively long four years after their last release (Loved) and responds explicitly to the circumstances of the shared challenges of the past couple of years.
I wouldn’t usually use large chunks of the press blurb in a review, but in this case, it is most eloquent in explaining that the album (and planned follow-up) ‘expose the emotional core of combating mental illness when one’s fine‐tuned coping and management mechanisms have been involuntarily stripped away, and you’re forced to navigate this intensely divided and miserable political climate through a global pandemic. The fury, fear, and confusion, followed by a profound sadness and mourning, drags you down while it cuts and pummels, like you’re experiencing every one of your lowest moments over and over again.’
Yes, it is that harsh, chaotic, fierce and unsettling. Thinking of those ‘lowest moments’ and the rough physicality of the sound on NULL has brought to mind a damp Sunday morning, walking out of a party in a farm building near the M11, when I suffered a momentary failure of balance and fell face-first onto the hard-standing. The surprise and shame of the impact, the grainy texture of the concrete and the sheer lack of comfort lying there are all present in this music.
The approach is perhaps more focused than listeners may remember from Loved, trading swirling hardcore-inflected acrobatics for nail-pulling and electrodes. Lyrics are acerbic and critical, taking aim at targets of rage in what is seen as vapid and self-serving politics. The vocal attack is unrelenting, becoming one of many sites of discomfort and alienation in its anger and monotony.
Yes, it is that harsh, chaotic, fierce and unsettling…
Around this the instrumentation (drums, guitar, bass, saxophone, synth and piano) howls and trumpets like an animal in pain, scrabbling noise and jangling nerves, or laying down a mega-dense crush like concrete blocks. At times somehow simplistic in approach, the rough-hewn percussion and crunch might lead us to overlook the expanded sound palette and wide scope of the songwriting at work on NULL – compare for instance the challenge of Throw Your Phone In The River and the epic of Lost Grip with its snare rolls like a march to the scaffold.
We might see an arc to the album also, with the initial squaring-up of the first three songs pulling back into a broader middle section, and the ‘anchors of frozen meat’ pulling us down after Not My Fault. There’s a swagger or stagger and then turbid rhythms of panic. The stark industrial of The Tie refuses to draw its unhappy elements together into a song. This confrontation makes the album a difficult listen – even the songs with clear melodic/harmonic elements and groove have a nihilistic coldness about them.
In my tentatively proposed ‘mellow middle’, KEN mode edge towards some post-rock expansiveness but there’s no catharsis. The rough cut from the reverie that ends Lost Grip is presumably a decision to this aim and makes the emotional experience of the album disjointed as we are thrown back into the onward-rushing ‘statement of mental collapse and despair made sonic’.
For many listeners all this alienation will no doubt be counterproductive, closing down our ears to the ‘untasteful place’ being described. The album has already found many receptive ears, however, and I’m sure will be another unpleasant milestone in KEN mode’s road.
Scribed by: Harry Holmes