KEN Mode Are Cold, Brutal and Somehow Inviting on 'Void'
Published Sep 22, 2023There are many ways people deal with trauma, with pain, with isolation. Some retreat into themselves; others search for company and connection. Some find new hobbies, set goals, dream of better times and days and moments; some write 16 songs over two albums to cope.
That's exactly what KEN Mode, Canada's finest purveyors of extreme noise rock, did. Over two devastating albums, the band — lead vocalist and guitarist Jesse Matthewson, drummer Shane Matthewson, bassist and vocalist Scott Hamilton, and multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Kathryn Kerr — responded to the pandemic through experimentation, aggression and beautiful noise. Null, released in 2022, was the first album in this two-album cycle, and exactly one year later, the band presents its scorched follow-up, Void.
Void is the band's third collaboration with Andrew Schneider, who also produced 2018's Loved and last year's Null (recorded in the same sessions as Void). Schneider's wide-ranging discography includes albums by Unsane, Cave In, M.G. Lederman and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones (!), and his ability to harness varied forms of aggression and power allow KEN Mode's experimental tendencies to flourish. This need — to morph and avoid sonic stagnation — is audible all throughout Void: torrents of noise, pounding percussion and bleating saxophones sit next to quiet, reflective passages; screamed vocals are followed by spoken word. It is relentless but never directionless, the band's signature sound punctuated, not hindered, by moments of sombre calm. Industrial, ambient, drone and musique concrete can be heard across various tracks, painting a much more complex picture of what "noise" can be.
With its rolling drums, skeletal guitar lines and explosive chorus, "These Wires" has a decidedly post-hardcore sound, particularly in the vocals, with shades of Rites of Spring and Family Man-era Black Flag poking through. "We're Small Enough" is a synth-heavy instrumental piece reminiscent of Depeche Mode…if they were into prog and Between the Buried and Me. Its pounding post-punk bassline conjures up images of big haired '80s goth, and helps give the album a more diverse emotional palette compared to its vicious predecessor.
"A Reluctance of Being" takes on the grinding, industrial rhythms of early Swans, while "Not Today, Old Friend" is a post-rock monolith that could have comfortably fit on Spiderland. It's the best track on the album, starting off desolate and dark before transforming into a jazzy, twinkling lament for a past love, a past friend, a past feeling — perhaps even a past self. It's mournful, no doubt, but something about its fuzzy cymbal crashes, skeletal instrumentation and sing-speak vocals points to a light at the end of the very long, very dark tunnel that KEN Mode have been travelling through for the last few years. It's a faint light, absurd and abstract and misremembered, but it's there. Perhaps one day, the band will recall its name. But for now, they've brought us here into their void, where the darkness is cold and brutal and inviting.
With Void, KEN Mode have completed their dark, post-pandemic two-album cycle. If Null, in all its experimental glory, is the apocalypse, Void is its ash-covered aftermath; the weirder, more complex, more eclectic foil. While Void treads some familiar territory (the band has dabbled in many of these genres in the past), it also embraces mournful, melancholic tones, basking in moments of quiet solitude. It's certainly less frantic than Null, and that's where the predecessor has a slight upper hand: it's more effective and immediate in its scorn and vitriol, which aids in delivering the catharsis promised by these two albums.
Still, even in its quietest moments, Void is a harrowing listen, and KEN Mode have fully embraced the power of "post-", accentuating the crushing torrents of noise with song-length moments of respite. While not as immediate as its predecessor, Void solidifies KEN Mode as one of Canada's most important heavy acts, a band that doesn't just rely on brute force to affect its audience. Pain comes in many forms, and so does healing — KEN Mode understand these nuances. Enter the void, and you just might, too. (Artoffact)