*** Go to our YouTube channel in the link below to see the video review of this record in episode #49 of the SBR Album of the Week.
‘KEN Mode try to avoid melody where possible. You’re not supposed to have a good time. If you want entertainment, listen to an AC/DC album. This is the audio equivalent of visiting a Holocaust awareness exhibition,” said Scream Blast Repeat in our review of last year’s Null album from KEN Mode. The fact that this band have a prestigious Canadian Juno Award to their name for 2011’s Venerable LP is just as impressive as their ability to toss you into the midst of another person’s trauma. Listen to a KEN Mode record and you feel like you’ve walked into the den of a stalker whose psychopathic tendencies could explode at any moment. Or so you think…
It’s unusual for an established band to release two albums in consecutive years. But Void sounds like it came into creation around the time of 2022’s Null as a more introspective counterpart. Fans of the group’s eviscerating audio attack will arch their eyebrows and stroke their chin when they digest this record for the first time. The aggression levels have no interest in matching the intensity of the predecessor LP, yet the listening experience is still more intense than a sermon from a Democratic Unionist Party preacher with Ulster’s LGBTQ community in his sights.
Opening track, ‘The Shrike’, does a good job of promoting the illusion of business as usual in the way it claws the skin from your neck under a booming wave of grungy guitar distortion. It might even remind you of track number one from their 2018 Loved album. Vocalist, Jesse Matthewson, sounds as unnerved as ever when he takes to the microphone with his desperate shouts and screams reverberating through the mix likes the last pleas of a righteous death row criminal aiming one last jab in the eye of society. Yet beyond the violent guitar stabs and rough amplification of electricity is a subtle exploration of the mid-range fretwork synonymous with the debut Joy Division record.
Let’s not kid ourselves – this is a heavy album. But the hostile industrial moments of the last record seldom appear here. Instead, Jesse Matthewson explores a wider range of personalities. ‘Painless’ throbs with the shrill pitch of feedback loops and deep bass guitar incursions, yet ‘These Wires’ searches for a melody among the minimalist piano sprinkles and high-register guitar arpeggios. Here, Matthewson uses the same agitated spoken-word technique as Henry Rollins before the distortion take over at 01:21. Then he roars, “Why would anything feel right again?” as if awaking among the rubble of an earthquake. Think of an extreme version of The Pixies with rough noise aberrations buried among the glow of a superficial calm.
Of course, this album has its kill-everyone-now moments. ‘I Cannot’ can take its place next to any of the harshest material in the KEN Mode discography. The violent crunch of guitars and unhinged belting vocals will remind you of Today is the Day at their glorious best. You can feel your eyes bulging and your solar plexus tightening under the weight of the instruments. Yet KEN Mode’s lyrical protagonists are often the instigators of their own downfall rather than victims with no agency. “I don’t think there is valour in making it to the other side with so many that you despise,” laments Jesse Matthewson.
The need for atonement in ‘He Was a Good Man, he Was a Taxpayer’ is remarkable for its unsentimental honesty. “We were never young. We were never strong. It’s of so little consequence that you forgive me now that I’m gone.” Here, Scott Hamilton weaves a slithery bassline through the mix as Jesse Matthewson strains every muscle in his throat. Mid-range guitar notes hover over the rhythmic architecture of the song like a lingering gas leak. Closing track, ‘Not Today, Old Friend’, continues you with the bass-led rumination, but this time the spoken-word vocals purvey a false hope. You might even call them facetious, like a cynic who can no longer take comfort in the assurances of others. This is the main departure of album number nine – it enhances the soliloquy approach by scaling back some of the noisier musical elements so the voice can air its grievances uninterrupted.
KEN Mode will never be easy listening, but it will surprise you how much you can sit through this record in the mind of a voyeur rather than a tormentor. As a sequel to Null, it triumphs as a darker piece of contemplation with a focus on the subtleties missing from the last album. You can feel the hands loosening around your throat, but there’s no guarantee your life will be easier from here.
Release Date: 22/09/2023
Record Label: Artoffact Records
Standout tracks: The Shrike; I Cannot; Not Today, Old Friend
Suggested Further Listening: Chat Pile – God’s Country (2022), Swans – Children of God (1987), Great Falls – Objects Without Pain (2023)