Album Review - KEN Mode’s Success

June 22, 2015

Hailing from Winnipeg, Manitoba, KEN mode is a noise rock/metal trio made of up the Brothers Matthewson (Jesse on guitar and vocals, Shane on drums) and their bassist, Skot Hamilton. They’ve been in existence for about 16 years and they recently released their sixth full length record, entitled Success. If you’re curious about their name (as I was when I was first introduced to their special brand of chaotic heaviness), it’s drawn from a memoir written by punk/hardcore legend Henry Rollins, describing the mentality of his time with Black Flag: “Kill Everyone Now…KEN mode all the time.” That sort of in-your-face, no-holds-barred attitude is a perfect fit for the music that KEN mode has created throughout their career.

They have excelled at crafting a sound that is heavy, technical and thoroughly engrossing. Their past albums could be generally categorized as metal, with tinges of noise, sludge and hardcore mixed in. But they’re also filled with excellent experimentation and thought-provoking lyrics. The various genres of heavy music can easily devolve into self-parody, yet KEN mode has avoided any risk of that by consistently challenging themselves to expand their own sound and approach. Despite being primarily guitar/bass/drums-focused, their last album, Entrench, concluded with an instrumental track that featured a melody line carried by piano and supported by a string section. That fearlessness to continue exploring takes a big step forward on Success. While elements of their noise rock influences were noticeable in past albums, that style comes to the forefront in a big (and good) way on this record. They’ve slowed most of the tempos down just a hair and the overall mix has a bit of breathing room between the instruments, giving them space for extra grit and vibe without losing any of their signature heft and impact.

They come out of the gate swinging with lead single, “Blessed.” Of the nine tracks on this album, this opener is probably the one that sounds most like “old” KEN mode. Thick, sludgy and a total assault on the ears and head. It’s a monster of a song and might be too much for a first time listener. That said, if you can dig in and let the noise wash over you, you’ll come out the other side with a new appreciation for the skill that it takes to compose music like this. From there, the rest of the songs get just a tad more accessible, at least musically-speaking. This is probably the most catchy that KEN mode has ever been and that’s not a criticism at all. They sound fantastic and completely within their element. They’ve managed to pull on musical threads that lead back to bands like Barkmarket, The Jesus Lizard and Harvey Milk, without sounding the least bit derivative. I’ll put it this way: I got my copy of the album a few days before the official release date (let’s hear it for preorders, am I right?) and it’s been on almost constant repeat in my car (and on my computer and on my iPod) ever since.

One final note before bringing this thing to a close: I’ve seen a few reviews talk about how Success is lyrically bleak, misanthropic and/or hateful. I actually think that these criticisms are missing additional layers to the lyrics that become a bit more clear on multiple listens. While I would never try to speak for an artist (especially one that I haven’t had a chance to talk to personally), part of the fun of diving into an album is trying to dissect and understand what’s going on beneath the surface. So with that being said, I offer up this interpretation of the thematic core of Success. Through various narrative devices and lyrical approaches (caustic language and well-placed profanity, among others), KEN mode is actually offering up a pretty devastating critique of modern existence and the systems that uphold it. Far from being misanthropic, I think this is a record that is desperately seeking a healthy space to be human in the midst of corporate and societal structures that make us less and less who we are. It doesn’t offer up any easy answers, yet that’s appropriate given how hard it is to stand up to these systemic demands. Think of the violence of Flannery O’Connor and/or the weird, dark humor of Chuck Palahniuk set to music and you’ll be on the right track for picking up what KEN mode is putting down.

So while it’s definitely not for everyone, this is the sort of music that rewards the adventurous listener. If your interest is piqued, visit their Bandcamp page, throw on some headphones and disappear into the noise.

- Jeremy Hunt. Jeremy hails from North Carolina, a beautiful and fabled land where the BBQ and fried food is plentiful and the average humidity makes you feel like you're walking around submerged in a glass of sweet tea. While he's a musician of mostly ill repute, he hopes to eventually release something that tens of people will listen to and adore. In all things, he is supported, loved and carried along by the incredible women who make up his family: his wife and their four amazing girls.

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