Killing Your Darlings: KEN Mode

When I started this feature I decided to review a single album rather than the entire backlist of each artist.  But upon opening up a Bandcamp page presenting an artist’s entire back catalogue, without having to spend a penny before knowing if I like what I’m going to hear…well, I revised my approach. Presented with this opportunity to listen to a far larger amount of music, and in turn write a vastly–better informed article, I decided to comply with common sense for once. The downside is that if I end up awarding the artist under scrutiny the hallowed thumbs up, Mr Piggy Bank’s days are numbered.

KEN Mode band photo

KEN Mode: weird, noisy, sparse, abrasive, founded in churning bass lines, sarcastic lyrics and vocals varying between a punk–scream and something a bit like like Jacob Bannon’s raspy, straining shriek. I started off with the intention of listening to just Entrench and basing my conclusion on that single album. Out of their six albums, I chose Entrench as it is #24 on Pitchfork’s top metal albums of 2013 and on Steel For Brain’s 2013 halfway–through–the–year–list (with a praising review at the same site). However, I don’t recall a single bad word about any of their albums; Venerable won the 2012 Heavy Metal/Hard Music Juno Award (which was also nominated for Rock Album of The Year at the 2012 Western Canadian Music Awards) and Entrench was longlisted for the 2013 Polaris Music Prize and nominated for the 2013 Heavy Metal/Hard Music Juno Award. Bestowed with critical approval, and not a bad word about them… until now.

(Note: With my change of plan, this feature starts at their second most recent album, then works backwards, then jumps to their most recent album at the end. Buckle in.)


 
Entrench, released in March 2013 on Season of Mist, begins with the ceaselessly changing riffs of Counter Culture Complex. Second track No, I’m In Control also features big, pulsing bass and vocals with a punk snarl to them. Your Heartwarming Story Makes Me Sick locks in at 2.10 to great effect. Some good stuff so far. Fourth track The Terror Pulse has the same pace, the same formula. The vocals snarl, but don’t catch alight. The Promises of God has a cool, seething and choppy chorus riff and drumming, but I break out of a day dream when Romeo Must Never Know begins; clean, quick–echo vocals, clean arpeggios with space from both bass and guitar, and a marching snare. A big change from the other tracks. The beauty has surfaced, to circle with the beast; the scope has just opened up, from four walls to a room with a view. And the layers peel away one–by–one at the end. But come the next track Secret Vasectomy, and again I’m struggling to write anything about it. No single element stands out, nor does the songwriting. Figure Your Life Out has Converge–like guitar, and tightens up at 3.15 into something of a promise of a climax. When it strips to a couple of bars of just guitar and minimal drums, it sounds like this promise is going to be delivered on, but instead it goes back into ugly, spacious dissonance.

A kind of extension upon the nearly–always present dissonance, the lyrics are consistently misanthropic;

I’d like to thank you for the speech you’ve delivered from your
condescending high–horse, like you’re the only one that’s lived
(Counter Culture Complex)

and

…I hope you enjoy slaving away for someone else’s
dream just so your wife can have a bigger house. If this is your
fairy tale, then your heartwarming story makes me sick.
(Your Heartwarming Story Makes Me Sick)

I understand the idea of expressing a dislike of something ill–natured and insidious by taking it to its logical conclusion (I’m looking at you here Hunter S. Thompson). But in the case of KEN Mode, it feels like studied satire. Again, I had nothing to say about Why Don’t You Just Quit?, and the shame of this was partially made up for but also thrown into sharp relief by final track Manomyth, with an introduction that sounds like it was written at midnight at the top of Notre Dame. Although there are no bells, the echoing guitars toll, toll for thee. Echoes, strings, melody; this feels like the true sight of tragedy after an album’s worth of misanthropy and sarcasm.


 
Venerable, released in March 2011 on Profound Lore, starts with Book Of Muscle’s cement mixer–like bass, and it’s in full skronk mode by 1.00. During second track Obeying The Iron Will it strikes me that KEN Mode have very little rhythm guitar, but rarely does there seem to be much variation in sonic space. There is a cool breakdown at 1.20, when all the elements heave together, leading into a spacious, contemplative section of sonorous guitar and a subdued rhythm section, but I fail to find anything that distinguishes the next two tracks, Batholithe and The Irate Jumbuck, from most of KEN Mode’s other songs. Ironically, the lyrics to Batholithe are about ennui, gut ache, commuting, work you hate and every day forever to come;

the road is taken to a numbing punch–line: spinning my wheels until the
week draws to a close. Rinse, repeat; Waiting for the snow to fall.

I think one of the things that I have found dislikeable about KEN Mode is the big lack of dynamics. The occasional quiet sections, which are distinctive to the point of being the highlight of whichever album they’re on, aren’t really enough to sell the song, let alone the album and band, to me.

For slow, contemplative, confessional yet obscure lyrics, much of the material is choppy and arrhythmic, such as A Wicked Pike;

As though a mist of tiny glass shards is raining down; Head down and run through this starchy maze as my lungs fill with moths.

It just doesn’t mesh for me. Ironically (another word that springs to mind a lot more often than I would like it to), the following track, the instrumental Flight of The Echo Hawk, is a more distinctive number than its vocalised neighbours. Never Was starts off calm, calm as a bomb, and vocalist Jesse Matthewson’s whispering. I’m afraid. Ah, here’s the screaming. But the song goes on. And then on. It runs flat.

I almost hate to say this, but by the time eighth track The Ugliest Happy You’ve Ever Seen is played through, it all sounds the same. Even though the lyrics abound in poetic imagery, the format in which they are delivered cannot elevate these songs beyond ‘another KEN Mode song’. The pace is mid to mid–slow. There is a constant bottom–end bass riff as the sonic foundation. There is a more changeable layer of guitar on top. Even the eerie Terrify The Animals and the cool alternate riffing of Mako Shark, with bursts of old–school thrash, can’t save it.


 
Mennonite, released in March 2008 on Arctodus Records, starts off faster than Venerable and Entrench with Extending Common Courtesy Throughout The Evening. However, by third track The Romanticist I’m coming to the conclusion that I think you have to be really into this one flavour that KEN Mode scoop up, as it is a) plentiful b) not changing. Looking through my notes, I found I had written nothing, not a single word, until closing track The Goat; ‘this has a cool, bendy riff. Use of acoustic, and acoustic riff, which builds in layers, is great. Had to wait an album for it though.’ Again, there is a big lack of dynamics.


 
This was much the case for Reprisal, released in July 2006 on Escape Artist Records. Although opening track The Hammer Party is instantly distinguishable by the clean bass tone, and the song feels tighter than their later material, I was still dissatisfied with what I was hearing. By fourth track Seul I think I had managed to put a finger on it; the riffs never hit their stride, a stride, any stride. It feels that their atonality is the norm, rather than the deviation. The near–constant dissonance doesn’t lend itself well to distinguishability. The moments that shine out, such as the cool melody in Musk Ox or the very effective layer withdrawal into just drums between 5.00 and 6.00 in Seul, only serve to exacerbate this disappointment.


 
Mongrel; released in April 2003 on Escape Artist Records. I struggled and failed to say anything about this album. No one single moment is bad, but it all blends into…I’m not sure what.


 
Success, released in June 2015 on Season of Mist, starts with the powertool riffs and tones of Blessed. I like this. Enter sneering vocals, cleaner than on the previous albums. I like this too. These Tight Jeans continues with the punk vibe, and has female ‘riposte’ vocals. By next track The Owl I’m starting to think it’s the change in vocals that make Success more enjoyable, and in turn that bit more accessible. However, with the entrance of the faster I Just Liked Fire, once again it turns to mush, and not until the quiet section of final track Dead Actors am I interested again, particularly liking the line ‘I sit here alone listening to the crash of waves.’

Given that I dislike 90% of KEN Mode’s music, I can’t fathom why, but I want to like them. Maybe it’s a sense of it nearly being good. But I can’t. I won’t. KEN Mode stands for Kill Everything Now Mode. You’re the boss; this is one darling I’ll kill with only some reluctance.

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