[23 March 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
For the better part of the past decade, KEN Mode has been cementing its reputation as a force on the Canadian prairies, to the point now where the Winnipeg, Manitoba, noise rock trio are regarded very highly by scenesters and Canadian media alike. With three full-length albums (2003’s Mongrel, 2006’s Reprisal, 2008’s Mennonite), the band has ably carved its own niche in the noise scene, deriving heavily from such usual suspects as Unsane, the Jesus Lizard, and Today Is the Day while incorporating a strong sense of sludge metal groove and doom metal heaviness, the songwriting improving steadily with each new release. However, KEN Mode’s real strength has always been its ferocious, highly cathartic live show, and for all the efforts of guitarist Jesse Matthewson and his drummer brother Shane, and despite plenty of rather fawning praise by the Canadian music press, that live energy could never quite translate onto record as well as it should have.
It was clear that KEN Mode’s fourth album would be a crucial one; if they ever wanted to make a serious statement on a bigger scale outside their home country, it would have to be now. In a surprising turn, the band signed with the highly reputable Canadian label Profound Lore, a label more known for specializing in metal rather than noise and hardcore. But being linked to the label alone immediately lent the band credibility, creating far more advance buzz than usual. Secondly, and most crucially, they decided to forego the usual routine of recording at home and have Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou record and mix the record. Ballou’s reputation as a producer is the highest it’s ever been these days, and if there was one person who could capture KEN Mode’s live intensity on record, it’s him.
So it comes as absolutely no surprise that Venerable is a blistering piece of work, the record KEN Mode should have made years ago. The template is as same as ever: the rhythm section of Shane Matthewson and bassist Chad Tremblay (who has since been replaced by Mares of Thrace’s Thérèse Lanz) churning away almost mechanically, creating a solid enough foundation for Jesse Matthewson to unleash those riffs that veer from atonal screeches to slyly melodic movements. What Ballou brings to the table, though, is a sense of clarity to the recording. Venerable is stripped of clutter, the clarity of the mix ironically making the delivery all the more intense.
By now, KEN Mode excels at the craft of noise rock songwriting, and the way these ten tracks ebb and flow gracefully is a testament to that expertise. A perfect example of the band’s use of dynamics can be heard on “Obeying the Iron Will”, as the song shifts from a nimble central riff not far removed from the style of Mastodon, to massive crunches, to an understated section that has Shane and Tremblay cranking up the tension (the snare drum sound having a decided Albini-like feel to it), building toward that inevitable explosive return to the main riff. Clocking in at a comparatively long seven minutes, “The Irate Jumbuck” manipulates the listener in similar fashion; it’s such a simple formula, but when a band has as much chemistry as KEN Mode does, the payoffs can be immensely satisfying, and the way the mix practically leaps out of the speakers, neophytes finally have a good indication of just how powerful this band can be.
Arguably the most significant headway the band makes on Venerable is on the instrumental “Flight of the Echo Hawk”, which sees the trio venturing into the expansive terrain of (‘scuse the term) “post-metal”, and doing so in as classy fashion as Year of No Light and Rosetta. It’s a fleeting, three and a half minute piece, but it’s a welcome, surprisingly beautiful little respite from the other, more visceral tracks, and one that hints at further interesting developments in the future. However, it’s the overall album that packs the biggest punch, songs like “The Ugliest Happy You’ve Ever Seen”, “Never Was”, and “Batholith” seeing all the pieces finally fall into place for this hard-working band. For longtime fans of the band, this is the album you’ve been waiting for. For those unfamiliar with KEN Mode, brace yourselves.