In March 2012, Canadian trio KEN mode won the inaugural Heavy Metal/Hard Music Album of the Year trophy at the nation’s Juno Awards. After 12 years of tireless toil, KEN mode thoroughly deserved to win for its storming fourth album, 2011’s Venerable, although, in truth, the band was probably more surprised than anyone to find itself standing at the winners’ podium. However, the award wasn’t just an acknowledgment of the album’s abundant strength. It was also a testament to the band’s tenacity.
Formed in 1999 by brothers Jesse (guitar/vocals) and Shane Matthewson (drums), along with bassist Darryl Laxdal (who exited in 2006), KEN mode has taken its ‘Kill Everyone Now’ moniker (lifted from a Henry Rollins quote) very seriously. The band has slogged it out on the road since its beginnings, sealing its live reputation, and in Venerable, KEN mode found the ideal mix of metallic hardcore’s hostility, post-hardcore’s savvy, and Amp Rep-styled noise-rock convulsions. If there’s one thing that can be said of KEN mode, it’s that the band is smart. It may be fond of battering the listener to within an inch of their lives, but it does so with astute shading to all its murderousness.
The Juno Award win introduced KEN mode to a much wider potential audience, and the band’s anticipated new album, Entrench, sees some notable changes in response. KEN mode has secured a (hopefully) permanent bassist in Andrew LaCour, and signed a new worldwide deal with label Season of Mist. Recorded by Matt Bayles (Mastodon, Isis etc), Entrench also features guest appearances from Tim Singer (Deadguy) and Dave Verellan (Narrows, Botch), and the album’s first tracks premiered on Pitchfork before appearing on numerous other websites. Clearly, there’s a lot invested in the new album from the band and the label, and there’s a lot of expectation from those who matter most, KEN mode’s fans.
The band has responded to those pressures as it always has: by making a powerful album boiling with tension and rage. KEN mode’s noise-rock growl is unmistakable, but Entrench‘s 11 songs favor a crueler, more cantankerous metalcore sound — with the album’s lyrical themes of perseverance and doggedness reflected in its fighting stance. Like all of KEN mode’s work, Entrench comes with a narrative admission of life’s endless trials, with the key lyrical point being to never give up — an attitude that has clearly brought the band to this stage of its career.
Entrench is the band’s most aggressive album, and the bludgeoning weight of post-hardcore features heavily. Guitars are sawtoothed and gouging in parts, highly technical in others. “Counter Culture Complex” begins on a twisting swirl of strings, before the hammering, vitriolic shards of riffs and whirlwind drumming arrives. And along with “The Terror Pulse” and “Why Don’t You Just Quit?” it dives into a vortex of dissonant math-rock and grotesquely staggering sludge. Metalcore is most prominent in the eruptions of bitter, sheet-metal riffing and roaring vocals of “Figure Your Life Out” and “Secret Vasectomy”, while “Your Heartwarming Story Makes Me Sick” works its way up to an almost Pig Destroyer fevered pitch.
In all, Entrench revels substantial compositional growth, with KEN mode crossing borders into new territories without losing its sense of identity. The chug and churn of “No; I’m in Control” and “Daeodon” mixes sludge and hardcore with the pandemonium of KEN mode’s noise-rock past. But while there’s no lack of velocity on the neck-snapping tracks, the band offers the hand of sympathy on the seven-minute-plus hypothermic drawl of “Romeo Must Never Know” and final soundscape “Monomyth”.
Certainly the newfound adventurism must come from having another songwriter, bassist LaCour, onboard. Hailing from Orlando, Florida (a fair jaunt from KEN mode’s Winnipeg, Manitoba locale), LaCour adds a little humidity to the band’s frostier assaults. His former role as songwriter and guitarist for Khann has allowed new ideas to ferment, and the presence of three voices at the writing table means KEN mode has constructed more multi-dimensional songs, drawing it away from comparisons to similar noise-rock/metal acts.
Producer Matt Bayles has also kept KEN mode sounding live and hulking, with KEN mode’s all-important dirty guitar tone being amplified to greater heights. Bayles gives clarity and fullness to the sonic filth as he did on Mastodon’s Blood Mountain and Isis’s In the Absence of Truth, allowing KEN mode to work harder on catchier, grooving riffs without losing any of the grittiness or ruggedness. Of course, a proportion of Venerable‘s success came down to recording with Kurt Ballou — a producer well versed in ensuring all the grime and stains of life on the road were transferred to disc — and Entrench does sound more polished in comparison, though thankfully the band doesn’t sound any more hygienic.
All things going well, Entrench is set to be KEN mode’s most successful release yet. Calling to mind many of the best attributes of bands such as Botch, Unsane, Converge, and Today is the Day, as well as plenty more purveyors of artfully constructed heavy music, it will have more widespread appeal for fans across the spectrum of metal, post-hardcore, and noise rock. The album’s lurching tempo changes and clashing dissonance bleeds with the wreckage of lives lived in struggle, while the seismic bass rumbles and pummels with as much authority as the drums and guitars.
Entrench is quarrelsome and confrontational, and it covers a lot of weather-beaten and acidic terrain over its 47 minutes. However, its finest feature is that although its tenor and withering weight can be construed as hateful and intimidating, its message is hopeful, and in the end, it gives you every reason to fight. Containing belligerent and inspiring tunes for frustrating days, Entrench has arrived at the perfect time.