KEN Mode are a band that has consistently exceeded all of my expectations. While it’s not right to play favorites, their seventh album Loved has been mine, and one I’ve frequently returned to since its release in 2018. Starting out in Winnipeg, Canada by Jesse Matthewson on vocals, guitar, bass, and piano alongside his brother Shane on drums in 1999 as a more stoner and rock band. Skot Hamilton joined in 2014 on bass and backing vocals while Kathryn Kerr come on in 2021 on saxophone, synth, piano, percussion and backing vocals. This is the line-up I’d like to talk about.
2022 was a very frustrating year to say the least. I could go through what was going on politically, economically, and culturally but you don’t want to hear about that. It’s been done to death. That overall feeling we were all experiencing was akin to a lightly gripped strangling that refused to let enough air in or out. It was this mental state that led me to listen to Ken Mode’s 2022 release NULL repeatedly. That album is a thirty-five-minute explosion of raw hatred that hasn’t lost its edge after all those listens.
The band revealed the recordings for NULL were too much for one album so they split them into two with VOID holding the remaining tracks. If the thought that these songs were the leftover, or even throwaway, from that recording session, you are in for a forty-minute ride through some of the darkest, bleakest, noisiest sludge metal fueled freakouts, speckled with beautifully somber moments, that attempt to remove the fingers still wrapped around your neck that have been there way too long.
The Shrike begins with a ferocious guitar front and center that eventually breaks away and into a barrage of decimating instrumentation. This setup shows immediately what KEN mode do best, shaking your mental state until it’s ravenous enough to break you out of your thoughts for a bit. Breathless vocals wretch the words ‘I don’t want to feel this way’ emulate the viewing of a complete breakdown of someone’s psyche with perfection. After all the time spent listening to NULL, it’s impossible for me to completely separate VOID from it, so, I think of this first song as the last fleeting signs of the anger breakdown we heard before. While signs of it are still obvious, the hurt is what’s more clear.
But just as I think that, KEN mode catch a second wind on Painless. There’s a Fugazi channeling Motörhead vibe that moves at a breakneck speed. Drumming that is beyond complex dances around dizzying guitars and the band gives everything they possibly can as the song reaches an abrupt and shaking end.
A more subdued tonal shift comes with These Wires. Keys, which for the first time on the album aren’t buried in the mix, start the track and continue throughout the runtime. Lyrics are clear and imprint an imagery of wires embedding themselves into your flesh while the lyric ‘I can barely feel these wires now’ is repeated. The typical visceral vocal and musical outbursts you would expect weave in and out, but more often than not, utter hopelessness sets in. ‘Why would anything feel right again?’ acts like the track’s mantra.
A squealing guitar and keys force the mind to think about what wires control you. Is it your job? Your personal life? What’s creeped inside embedding itself within you? I will remember these words much longer than I remember whatever catastrophe is on the news today that I’m growing continually numb towards.
If NULL was a raging strangulation, then VOID is breaking free and kicking your aggressor until you’ve escaped its grasp…
We’re Small Enough is an instrumental track that focuses on synth elements creating a sci-fi atmosphere. It’s a very well-organized piece that creates a comfortable cocoon where the terrors we’ve been witnessing can knock around. The fevered tone then returns on I Cannot with cutting guitar licks, blurred drumming and restless vocals.
The collage of sound spins like some jagged, overworked machine shop saw spewing sparks. I can’t help but imagine the recording sessions as each musician drips with sweat while their bodies approach delirium. Claustrophobic tones surround the notes that grow in density until each riff and drum pound wretch away the hand still wrapped around your throat and air flows into your body again.
Coming in at a snail’s pace is A Reluctance Of Being. This is an unhinged exercise against any sort of rationality. Notes begin to drag on long enough that if the words haven’t started arousing your anxiety, the music certainly will. The stacked vocals are delivered in two different registers – one listless and one furious. The former states ‘I’m never going to be okay’ while the latter asserts ‘I’ll never let you be okay’. The slow, deliberate pace is tension incarnate that does eventually break bringing a wave of serotonin to groove perfectly with the guitar breakdowns.
Squeals against a massive bass chord movement drag along throughout the runtime of He Was a Good Man, He Was a Taxpayer. While that instrumentation is intense, it’s also dripping with a calmness that sits juxtaposed against what is perhaps Jesse’s most manic vocals yet. This is getting punched in the mouth and not caring.
These past seven songs set a numbing terror that’s grown and grown to perfectly set up the finale, Not Today, Old Friend. A slow, calculated pace creates a trancelike ambience that’s woven around a bumping bass vibration. Lyrics, spoken in a sarcastic manner state ‘that love, no matter how bloodless, has been noted, and isn’t that what matters’ send chills down my spine. This mood is greatly enhanced by Kerr’s background echoing vocals. That, along with her saxophone leads into the cello playing of John Paul Peters. This collision makes for possibly the most beautiful moment on the album.
VOID is the post-metal spiritual sequel to Slint’s Good Morning Captain, but without that eviscerating crescendo because it’s basically been happening all along. If NULL was a raging strangulation, then VOID is breaking free and kicking your aggressor until you’ve escaped its grasp. My final thought as the record ends, if Loved was my favorite KEN mode album then, I guess, VOID is my new favorite. And isn’t that what matters?
Scribed by: Richard Murray