KEN MODE – Null (2022)REVIEW

For years (eight albums now) I’ve seen folks flap their flippers at this band and suggest some variation of “noise rock for the ‘Jane Doe‘ generation” and, sure, that’d qualify as an insult or glowing praise depending on the examiner yet it continues to sum things well enough for those interested in a quick elevator pitch for Winnipeg, Manitoba-based metallic noise rock trio KEN mode. It ain’t the whole story, though, and their evolution has involved many a fit and start over the years for the sake of avoiding stagnation, self-preservation. This eighth full-length from the band, ‘Null‘, constitutes an especially thrashing, industrially socked droop into a darkest place yet as they reach for a variety of textures and dizzyingly altered tempos meant to convey anxiety, existential dread, and captivity. They’ve succeeded and generally deliver upon the task of hosting these complex, outsized and intense emotions as pure as they’d arrived between anno MMXX and MMXXI into increasingly artful hi-fi noise rock grinding. The question I’d have to ask the average listener at this point will be with concern for the general public’s capacity for self-examination, are you ready to feel it all over again? Again, and with a flog of your own brandish?

Formed in 1999 and demoed-out for a few years ’til well and truly ready, KEN mode were considered far more niche when they’d first broken out with their debut full-length (‘Mongrel‘, 2003) roughly twenty years ago. Their sound occupied a balmy mind palace scouring the desperately brutal crags of Unsane and Coalesce up front while musing over shades of emergent new-what’s-next action labels at the time (Black Market Activities, Robotic Empire, etc.) who’d found righteous convergence between nascent post-metal, mathcore, and chaotic hardcore otherwise. The Matthewson brothers at the heart of the band expressed it all in an imaginative crossover between edgier noise rock and metallic post-hardcore with various ratios to follow for a number of popular releases, switching out for a new bassist on basically every recording ’til 2015 and easing off the #core ganks around that time in favor of sludge/noise rock attuned stabilization. Though the band’s history is unique and their story interesting we can naturally push up to their more recent discography in building immediate precedence for what ‘Null‘ explores further.

What could we possibly gain from looking back at the past when the call for action in the present begins to outweigh the well assured bleak-ass future? A few style notes, I guess. I’m not going to dredge through all eight KEN mode records here in detail beyond suggesting their third (‘Mennonite‘, 2008) is underrated, their sixth (‘Success‘, 2015) was their first -great- album beyond their inspired debut for my own taste and though the band’s heaviest turn towards sludged darkness ‘Loved‘ (2018) deserved all of the praise it’d gotten… it flew over my head, or, under the radar that year. We can at the very least glean a clear need to produce different results, their own signature, and exciting stylistic combinations has persisted through all of their work. The eighth album from these Canadian fellowes is no different in this regard but is, again, written from a place so stewed in the cups of its emotional turmoil that it occasionally forgets to create space between cranked to ten hardcorish brutality and unstable seething in a quiet corner. This creates creating a loud-quiet-louder dynamic in exponent which feels oppressive even at just ~36 minutes and eight songs, if only because it side-steps some of their more interesting, involved rhythmic ideas explored since 2015 which groups like Chat Pile have gone an run with in their own way in the meantime. ‘Null‘ absolutely feels different, sounds different, and I suppose that is why it is painful in a way I’d not felt wheeling through their discography once again in preparation.

Professionally rendered misery.KEN mode have always employed the right folks for fitting but rarely self-same production values and there is no drop in that tradition between engineering/mixing from Andrew Schneider and mastering from Carl Saff. The fact that these dusted and downtuned guitar tones don’t clobber-over the rhythm section and their many clanking layers avoid complete mud is a feat in and of itself. There’ll be no gripes with the industrial metered fuzz and the sludge-heavy gloom of the record in terms of timbre though it doesn’t land quite as bleak or precise as Throat‘s latest, we can nonetheless check the box in terms of these folk sounding like themselves but without a plain reskin of ‘Loved‘ in hand. Well, it’d seem like a rote point for me to talk up the production values on a fucking noise rock record but I think it is worth emphasizing what it does per KEN mode‘s goal of conveying the wracking uncertainty of the pandemic onset and its unending dirge.

Null‘ communicates the fear of collapse from all angles in the only way that these folks’d see fit, eh, per the successful direction of their previous album which essentially boils down to “go darker, more art, more sludge” from my point of view, now adding saxophonist Kathryn Kerr as an official fourth member who likewise handles both peripheral and directive spots of synth, percussion and piano. The first single and opener for the album “A Love Letter” makes sure to include all of these contributions up front, lending an exasperated art-core feeling to the record to start. This leaves the ‘ready attuned listener hanging on every word, ready for the rant to go the places it needs to and as we’d gotten the equally acerbic and challenging, er, confrontational rhythmic ranting of “But They Respect My Tactics” it’d been safe to assume that KEN mode had transcended to this even more direct to face clever soured state in the interim yet these two pieces are especially confrontation and two peas in a pod in exception to the rest of the full listen.

The hazed, industrial marches through an unsound mind found on ‘Null‘ are relentlessly repetitive, dramatic in their punish and taxingly sludged misery (see: “The Tie”, “Unresponsive“) and although these pieces offer crucial expression for the greater reaction that is this record in a nutshell the ten minute atmospheric sludge bane that is “Lost Grip” is just such a hill to climb at some point. I’d eventually find myself dodging at least half of the piece upon repeat listens. The details of these songs are nonetheless remarkable and lend a certain modernity to the recording which absolves the experience from feeling safe or quaint but, they hardly stand up to the memorable hot-snapping charm of the math-metallic noise guitar buzzer “Throw Your Phone in the River” and the chilled Kowloon Walled City meets (at their most muted) Quicksand-esque refrains of my favorite song on the album, “Not My Fault”. I suppose I’m all about the depressive, manic doldrums which ‘Null‘ explores in general, I’d just prefer their teeth were always showing because those tend to serve the best pockets of rhythmic interest whereas the droning side of their gig doesn’t quite have the ‘extra’ it needs to land as profound as it should.

Truly conclusive thoughts will likely come when the second part of this suggested “two album arc” from KEN mode completes itself at a later date but if we are to consider and valuate ‘Null‘ as an isolated eighth album from a well-tested band fearing for their own existence and barking at a world gone mad, it ends up being a pretty solid and timely noise rock-adjacent spin that’ll make sure you feel something if at all inclined. Much as I love punishing and challenging music in general it takes some fighting against human nature to avoid certain points of pain and this is perhaps the uphill battle of becoming ingratiated with this record, it manages to stab its feelings out and… somehow quickly coils up with the knife in hand for the sake of watching the bleeding for a while. It ain’t all that pleasant to live through, but it does manage to sound pretty cool on loop. A moderately high recommendation.

Moderately high recommendation. (77/100)

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.
ARTIST:KEN MODE
TITLE:Null
LABEL(S):Artoffact Records
RELEASE DATE:September 23rd, 2022

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