KEN Mode

Anymore, I do my damndest to either keep to a minimum or wholly eliminate the “I” persona from reviews when I can.  This works out most of the time, but whenever you are reviewing a band that you have maintained a long-time listening relationship with…well, it gets pretty fuckin’ tough.  Winnipeg’s KEN Mode is always close to my Am-Rep corroded heart.  I’ve been a fan before Mongrel came out and at the time these muscle beasts just had some demo tracks up on (you guys remember that shit, right?).  The band’s holy trinity of Mennonite, Venerable and Entrench are goddamn go to examples of a band consistently pushing the limits of the groundwork laid by Today is the Day, Hammerhead, Kittens, Cherubs, Shallow North Dakota, Unsane, etc., into a progressive yet still punk-minded “fuck you” that speaks for itself.  Mongrel and Reprisal ain’t no slouches either…both records were as bent and hook-y as Am-Rep’s best and filled with early Hydrahead terror, equating to an audio figure four that broke the eardrums and the ankles over a grinding millstone of sonic skullduggery…

Anticipation and interest were certainly at a high in my camp to check out the band’s latest record succinctly dubbed Success which was recorded by notorious aural auteur Steve Albini.  On paper, KEN Mode + Albini = Success…that’s simple Algebra folks.  But something’s not quite right here.  The results aren’t a disgrace by any means, although they sure didn’t graduate Alpha Cum Laude with honors.  Opener “Blessed” illustrates rather quickly that this is the first time KEN Mode hasn’t really stepped forward from album to album.  A murky, very simplistic bass line goes on and on not giving madman skin-pounder Shane Matthewson any room to work his finesse.  His brother Jesse fillets the sludgy ugly with piercing, pointy daggers of angular noise and feedback while spouting off in a manner that’s so Henry Rollins I had to check the credits just to be sure.  Everything plays out like The Melvins with fewer quirks and far less charming idiosyncratic fuck-ups.  Also troubling was even at full motherfuckin’ blast on headphones the density the band is known for wasn’t there at all.  That thickness of sound has always been the band’s secret weapon and its absence is almost impossible for them to compensate for.  KEN Mode’s performances both live and on record are an enjoyably uncomfortable, humid to the point of heat sickness affair filled with joyous involuntary vomiting.  This time around it was like the volume bar couldn’t go up high enough and even switching operations to the stereo didn’t seem to help the flimsy tones at all.  Albini’s production is usually right on for this stuff, but shit man, he’s practically stripping away the unbridled, raw protein diet that fueled the band in the past.  Although, it’s pretty cool that Oxbow’s Eugene Robinson stopped by for some demented vocal support towards the song’s white noise, cumshot finale…

“These Tight Jeans” is faster and pumped up with punk rock but the recording is about as well built as a kid’s model car and the trio has certainly stripped the complexity down to a bare bones snarl.  They got taters on their plate for sure…so where the hell’s the meat?  Jill Clapham adds some snotty as fuck back-up vocals, but man Jesse’s voice lacks the real anger of prior releases.  Now he simply sounds as if he’s slightly agitated over not being invited to the company golf tournament as opposed to being on the verge of walking into work and beating everyone to death with a nine iron (the vibe felt on past releases).  The rhythm section is definitely workin’ this tune hardest; Shane breaks into some quick-handed, jazzy patterns on the snare to match Scott Hamilton’s upset stomach bass grumbles giving this piece good running legs.  There is a scattershot guitar attack going on throughout relying on minor key noise squeals, buzzy riffs and scratchy shred.  I get the constant nagging sense (like some old bitty in my ear) that Albini absolutely whiffed on the tones here.  Thanks be to Job that “The Owl’s” juxtaposition of twanging, blues-addled 6-string coupled with a walking bass groove manages some semblance of solidarity in the track’s intro.  Even then things are still like a thirty times more pretentious version of the Rollins Band with about 50% of the instrumental prowess.  Whenever bursts of pure distortion rise up into a vaguely Herculean riff, you still can’t help but feel that the usual heart KEN Mode put into their music is on lunch break.  Although this tune has the playfulness of The Cows and maybe even Barkmarket on its mind, it has absolutely none of the demented spirit of either until a brooding cello lead warps into a much needed full frontal riff at the 2:55 mark…that little glimpse of the old glory was good to hear but it doesn’t stay.

If you want to know what a diet, low calorie version of KM classics such as “Greeting Bedlam,” “The Musk Ox” or “The Pioneer” sounds like, by all means take a crack at “I Just Liked the Fire.”  The punchy start/stop tempos full of barrel vaulting snare fills, sandpaper riffs, off-the-cuff vocal shouts, skronk-y noise leads and lucid time changes led by the rhythm section are all there.  Yep, they are…and they have no recording punch, a watered down cookie cutter feeling from past achievements and generally about a 1/3 of the energy you’d expect from a band that was known for beatin’ your dick with brass knuckles in the past.  “Management Control” is back to “The Melvins fresh out of the bathtub” mode…everything seems unusually squeaky clean, the playing could benefit from some heft, the speed-y finale doesn’t hit with nearly enough impact and there isn’t any sort of hook to be found.  The feeling is that this could be the sketch to a monster and it never fully gestates to that status.  To be honest, aside from the “downtown intersection at rush hour” busyness of the rhythmically awesome “Failing at Fun since 1981,” there is little here worth a second mention or listen.

While always a pretty serious proposition with just the right amount of sly humor, KEN Mode simply feel like they have purposefully dropped a pretense-heavy arty bomb in hopes of getting the fan base to fuck off.  Those kinds of statements are cool, yet if you want to drop a bomb of said nature you need to have some fuckin’ gravitas behind it.  This shit is limper than a whiskey binge erection.  The recording is a pure duff job, the songs have very few moments to really get excited about and the composition, delivery, vocal performance and everything else comes off as phoned in.   While Success will hardly do anything to dent my fanship of the band, as I dig these guys plenty, it’s certainly IMO a very low-point in a discography packed with highs.  It’s not totally unlistenable…it just feels rushed and half-finished somehow.  You might feel completely different and that is for you to decide.  In some ways I am still absorbing the tricky, treacherous Entrench and will go back to it many more times before I sit down with Success again.

[Visit the band's website]
Written by Jay S
August 25th, 2015


  1. Commented by: glimmerfunnel

    That’s one of the coolest album covers I have seen in a long time.

  2. Commented by: Jay

    Oh yeah, the art is killer on this!

    I’m a long-time fan of these guys, and I keep kicking myself that it does nothing for me. Listened to it last night and still just don’t feel it at all.

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