It’s difficult to fathom that it’s been nearly twenty years since KEN mode’s debut album, Mongrel. In the time since that record, the Canadian group has traversed a wide array of sounds from punk and hardcore to noise-rock and sludge, treating each release as the steppingstone to the next. It’s that push to continue evolving that has kept audiences returning to their music, even if certain experiments have left some fans scratching their heads (see: 2015’s Success).
On their eighth full-length album, Null, the group lays it all out, throwing a bit of everything they’ve done into the mix. The three-piece lineup of KEN mode’s previous two records—the aforementioned Success and its 2018 follow up, Loved—has returned, with founding members Jesse and Shane Matthewson (vocals/guitar and drums, respectively), and bassist Scott Hamilton being joined this time by newly minted fourth member, multi-instrumentalist Kathryn Kerr.
Null, like any KEN mode record, is built upon feelings of anger, frustration and anxiety. The key to the band’s sound is their utilization of discordant guitar riffs, frenetic drumbeats and a gritty, rumbling bass to build tension within their songs. In their more straight ahead moments—tracks like “But They Respect My Tactics” and “Throw Your Phone in the River”—KEN mode are an able noise-rock band, landing somewhere at the crossroads of The Jesus Lizard and Melvins, albeit with a more hardcore fury.
And while an album of bruisers wouldn’t be unwelcome, KEN mode often do flip the script. Interspersed throughout the eight tracks are a handful of slower, more cerebral numbers. In these moments the four-piece take the opportunity to spread out and traverse wider soundscapes. Album closer “Unresponsive,” for example, is an oscillating bout of drums and noise, a bed on which Jesse lays a maniacal rant, while the pulsing death knell of “The Tie” is a horror soundtrack of washed out noise and siren-like wails.
The addition of Kerr opens the door up for more sonic experimentation. It’s felt particularly in moments like the atonal saxophone of opener “A Love Letter” and the creeping piano line of the funereal first half of “Lost A Grip.” But elsewhere, the additional hands seem under-utilized, missing opportunities to push the limits of what KEN mode can do. Synth tracks feel tacked on and buried in the mix, placed for atmosphere rather than inflection.
And there certainly isn’t anything wrong with not pushing Null into avant-garde territory—by all means, KEN mode are a more interesting band than many of their peers—but it often feels like the music is begging for just a little more. And with the ability to achieve more twisted and curious concepts evident, it feels like a band holding just a little back. It’s a shame because the moments that KEN mode take those chances are the best of the record.
Bottomline: On Null, KEN mode sound like a band testing the waters on certain ideas. They’re looking to get weird, but not daring to get weird enough. It leaves a feeling of uncertainty and restraint that the band would benefit from breaking free of. Null has one foot off the ledge, but they’re still holding onto the rails. Hopefully next time they take the plunge.
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Bottom line: hopefully next time you take the plunge, too.
Best first LG comment I've seen in a while. Well done
Props to the band member with the best shirts - Gun Club, Current 93, PJ Harvey. Maximum points.