Blood and Thunder: KEN Mode's Stab at 'Success'
KEN Mode's latest album is surprising people, but it should have been expected all along.
When your knowledge of a long-running band is limited to primarily the work they’ve put out since you were introduced to them, you risk developing unrealistic expectations. KEN Mode is an interesting case, because the majority of people in America only know the Canadian band from their post-2011 output, starting with the album Venerable, which put them on the map thanks to the involvement of tastemaker label Profound Lore and producer Kurt Ballou. As a result, some have assumed this band has more of a metal and hardcore background, and expect KEN Mode to sound like a sludgy Converge all the time. However, if you dig into the band’s past, you’ll find that above all else, the primary influence is noise rock. The shadows the Jesus Lizard, Cop Shoot Cop, and Big Black have always loomed very large over this band, and it was only a matter of time before they started to explore that influence on record a lot more deeply.
The right time, it turns out, happened when brothers Jesse and Shane Matthewson hired their new bass player. KEN Mode have gone through bassists like Spinal Tap has gone through drummers, and although he’s running a serious risk of exploding onstage and leaving a little green globule behind, Skot Hamilton has solidified this trio. The leader of miscreants Adolyne, one of the most obnoxious bands in noise rock, Hamilton brings a wealth of noise knowledge and experience to KEN Mode, and from the Matthewsons’ perspective, they have a guy who understands fully the idea and influences behind this ferocious band.
As a result, the fact that the acerbically titled sixth album Success dives headfirst into noise rock, leaving metal and hardcore behind, should come as no surprise at all. In fact it’s the most natural progression for KEN Mode imaginable, something they’ve been inching toward for well over a decade but never quite made that final leap. Bringing on the great Steve Albini to record the thing is just the clincher. No one knows how to record this music as well as he does -- he pioneered the damn genre, for crying out loud -- and he has the band sounding explosive. Tracking was recorded live, so that notorious KEN Mode live chemistry is there, and Albini has that rhythm section of Hamilton and Shane Matthewson sounding taut and pulverizing, bass up front in the mix, the drum tone natural and very raw.
Most crucially, of course, the songs on Success project a level of intensity that comes as close to capturing the band’s live potency as they’ve ever done. A very strong Drive Like Jehu feel permeates the entire record along with all the requisite AmRep and Touch and Go influences. Songs like “Blessed”, “These Tight Jeans”, “A Passive Disaster”, and “Failing at Fun Since 1981” are abrasive yet ludicrously catchy, also showing a wry sense of humor from Jesse Matthewson. It comes across as playful even, albeit in a "playing with matches and napalm" sort of way. Reciting his lyrics atop his trademark screaming and atonal guitar, he comes across as a maniacal spoken word artist, hollering in the ear to any and all passers-by, confronting them with his crazed, piercing stare.
Although Success takes great inspiration from late-‘80s and early '90s noise, it’s hardly derivative, fitting perfectly with KEN Mode’s musical trajectory and overall aesthetic. Only this time around, what was a gentle arc has now taken several sharp turns at once to the point where you’re left with something a lot more jagged. Making listeners uncomfortable has always been this band’s forte, and although forcing metal listeners out of their comfort zone might alienate some, others will find it an undeniable thrill.
(Listen to KEN Mode’s Success on Spotify.)
Akitsa, Grands Tyrans (Hospital Productions)
This fifth album by the Montreal underground black metal project came out a couple weeks ago, but despite having praised it in May I forgot to post a review of the darn thing here. Anyway, this strange little record is gleefully all over the map, much like an old Darkthrone album, where Bathory, punk rock, post-punk, gothic rock, and classic heavy metal collide, clatter, and bash about to make a weird, unsettling 41 minute listening experience. The overly raw, traditional black metal moments are at times brilliant (“Noire Bête Allée”, for instance), but the further outside the box this album ventures, the crazier and delightfully weirder it gets, best exemplified by the title track, which feels like Coven meets Bauhaus meets the Fall, with a crazed French Canadian chanting in liturgical fashion. More underground black metal should be this audacious. (Spotify)
False, Untitled (Gilead)
Three years after attracting a good deal of attention with their debut EP, the Minneapolis band finally has a proper full-length album out, and to no one’s surprise it builds on the promise shown in their previous work. Structurally it’s straightforward black metal, featuring compositions that average about 12 minutes in length. What makes False stand out, however, is the band’s keen melodic sensibility. The arrangements create the kind of swirling maelstrom effect you expect from wintry black metal, but underneath it all are melodies, harmonies, atmospherics, and even hooks that give the music so much more richness than you expect. All the while, vocalist Rachel screams, snarls, and even sings her heart out, that feral intensity countering the band’s more ornate site impeccably. Although the album flirts with overkill, clocking in at an hour, the band never loosens their grip on the listener, creating something that ultimately feels more uplifting than harrowing. (Spotify)
High On Fire, Luminiferous (eOne)
Having written in great deal about the seventh album by Matt Pike and the mighty High on Fire for NPR, I’m reluctant to do the same here just for fear of plagiarizing myself, but in a nutshell: this record is a scorcher. Although I still prefer the pairing of this band and Steve Albini ten years ago (which I wrote about a few months ago), Kurt Ballou has helped put together High on Fire’s strongest album since then. It’s loaded with the usual rampagers everyone expects from the trio (“The Black Plot”, “Carcosa”, “The Lethal Chamber”), but there’s even some subtle experimentation in the form of the soul-searching, autobiographical “The Cave” by a healthy and sober Pike. This band never disappoints, but they’ve come through with an above average effort here. (Spotify)
Kevin Hufnagel, Kleines Biest (Handmade Birds/Nightfloat)
If you’re familiar with mind-boggling instrumental death metal band Dysrhythmia, or Gorguts’ masterful 2013 album Colored Sands, you’ll be familiar with Kevin Hufnagel. In addition to being a supreme talent on guitar, however, he’s also an enthralling avant-garde musical artist, with a vivid imagination and a willingness to bend, break, and madly splice up any and all rules. In contrast to his 2013 solo album Ashland, which featured mesmerizing, haunting performances on baritone ukulele, this new release blends the organic and electronic, guitar solos and cut-and-paste experimentation. Hufnagel comes across as a mad scientist on this peculiar and exciting record, jazzy shredding evoking Frank Zappa, ambient arrangements approaching the darkness of Tim Hecker. (Bandcamp)
Iwrestledabearonce, Hail Mary (Artery)
You can be as weird and unpredictable as you want, but if you can’t write a good song, what’s the bloody point? Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart were smart enough to not let self-indulgence overwhelm their compositions, but try telling that to metalcore bands, who continue to think that dazzling technical skill is the only thing that matters. Iwrestledabearonce had a few moments that caught the attention of yours truly way back when -- I actually admitted to perversely enjoying their album six years ago -- but today the band’s kitchen-sink gimmick has become tiresome, and the unending racket, which is now rarely countered by dynamic melodies like it used to be, has become tiresome. Someone please take their instruments away until they learn how to write an engaging song. (Spotify)
Lucifer, Lucifer I (Rise Above)
It came as a huge disappointment when the Oath broke up mere weeks after the release of their very good debut album. While guitarist Linnea Olson found a new band in Grave Pleasures (formerly Beastmilk), her collaborator Johanna Sadonis formed Lucifer with former Cathedral guitarist Gary Jennings, and although Lucifer feels a little like a continuation of the Oath’s overall aesthetic -- the band even played an Oath track at Roadburn two months ago -- there are some marked differences as well. While the Oath’s approach to occult rock was gritty, based in an almost garage-influenced style of rock ‘n’ roll, Jennings takes Lucifer into a much heavier direction, drawing more from Black Sabbath and the first Rush album. In addition, his playing style is a lot more commanding, his riffs almost towering in their doomy way. It’s a big, ornate backdrop for Sadonis to work with, and she’s in full witchy mode on this record, her reverb-accentuated singing just low enough in the mix to add a little mystique to such standouts as “Abracadabra”, “Purple Pyramid”, and “Sabbath”. There’s no reinvention here; like the Oath, Lucifer is all about to creative people celebrating a past era of heavy music and creating something rich and vibrant on their own. In its own way, Lucifer I is a modest triumph. (Spotify)
Mefitic, Woes Of Mortal Devotion (Nuclear War Now!)
Here’s some extreme metal with character. These blackened death metal guys from Italy create some dense, dank music, but for all its seeming impenetrability -- that huge wall of sound, those comical growls -- there’s some genuinely engaging songwriting afoot. If you’re going to make good black metal, you’d better sound as evil as hell, and the gnarly, unsettling riffs they churn out do just that. If you want to create truly effective death metal, you’d better capture the feel, the horror, the stench of death in your music, and these tracks, which sound like they were recorded in a massive cavern, nail that feeling. As for the musicianship there’s an idiosyncratic, almost amateurish way the guitarists play, as if they’re self-taught and are just winging it, which adds to the record’s unpredictability, the riffs leading the listener into unexpected places. In fact, the gnarlier this album gets, as on the stomping “Eroding the Oblates of the Lord 2”, the better it is. (Bandcamp)
Pale Chalice, Negate The Infinite and Miraculous (Gilead)
The first full-length album by the San Francisco band is a comfortable balance between classic Norwegian black metal and the more atonal sounds that come from the West Coast. A good comparison would be early Bathory meets Ludicra, so if you’re familiar with both -- and let’s face it, you should -- you can imagine raw intensity offset by a subtly experimental air, best exemplified by “Weltering Depths of the Carrion Wave” and “Stigmatic Glands Through Supernal Rifts” (oh black metal, don’t ever change). If there’s a weakness. it’s that vocalist Steve Peacock doesn’t bring much more than the usual black metal snarl. Granted, that’s what the music demands, and it serves its purpose, but it would have been nice to hear some creativity and charisma in the vocals that could equal the talent on display on the instrumental side. Still, this is another knockout release by Gilead, one US black metal fans cannot afford to miss. (Spotify)
Titans Eve, Chasing the Devil (Self-Released)
Vancouver’s Titan’s Eve continues to be arguably the best unsigned band in Canada, and they seem content with the idea, having just put out their third self-released album. And it’s a rager, too, much akin to the robust, groovy thrash of Evile. Unlike Evile, however, Titan’s Eve hasn’t strayed too far into mainstream-pandering territory, instead keeping both feet planted in “true” metal: aggressive, gritty, bombastic, letting melodies carry the songs without sacrificing any intensity or integrity. The band continues to grow with each release too, and the songwriting is steadily broadening, the melodies are more compelling, the lead vocals are stronger (“War Path” is a great example), and the dynamics are often brilliantly executed. There’s a reason a band like Arch Enemy hand picked Titan’s Eve to open for them in Europe a couple years back. This band is a force, and the fact that they doggedly continue to take the independent route, in full control of their art, is admirable. (Spotify)
Vattnet Viskar, Settler (Century Media)
There are bands that build their whole modus operandi around the concept of “transcendental black metal” (okay, maybe just one), and there are others, like New Hampshire’s Vattnet Viskar, who achieve a unique level of transcendence effortlessly -- or so it seems. Ever since attracting attention with the self-titled debut EP three years ago, the foursome have shown signs of building toward something special, and two years after inching closer to that potential on Sky Swallower they’ve made a huge leap on Settler. Although black metal still forms the core of Vattnet Viskar’s sound, they’re moving more and more into broader musical territory, steering towards the heavier, slower, more contemplative style of Neurosis. As a result the bracing, icy black metal influence is countered by a sense of melancholy and majesty, which makes something uniquely majestic and uplifting, matching the feeling of the wonderful album artwork, which too thinks outside the box. Power is always a major factor in metal -- I often say it’s the most important factor -- but wonder is an underrated characteristic in the genre. Like the woman ecstatically experiencing zero gravity on the cover, there’s a sense of wonder to Settler, a sense of hope, a sense of risk, of venturing into the unknown. Such a feeling in heavy metal circa 2015 is all too rare. (iTunes)
Five Finger Death Punch is now one of the biggest-selling bands in mainstream metal, and for all the angry white dude posturing these clowns do, they’ve shown they’re capable of writing a damn good metal tune. “Lift Me Up” was a fine example, a good enough track to lure Rob Halford for a cameo appearance. So now that they’ve made their way to the top, it’s up to the Las Vegas band to keep that standard going. Or so you’d think. Instead, on their new single “Jekyll and Hyde”, they’ve completely phoned it in, going through the motions with uninspired nu-metal rapping and an embarrassing chorus that tries to become a stadium anthem. It’s hard to imagine people singing along to the moronic “oh we oh we oh.” I once wrote that Five Finger Death Punch can be as smart and cunning as Nickelback when it comes to pandering to the masses, but also like Nickelback, they can be a bunch of lazy sods as well. This track is awful, even for them.
Former Evile guitarist Ol Drake has a solo album coming out next week, and in advance he’s released this wonderful little instrumental homage to Van Halen. Not only does he brilliantly adopt Eddie’s playing style to the point where you think it’s Van Halen himself on the track, but also the overall arrangement is Van Halen to a tee, right down to the clunky Alex Van Halen swing. It’s loads of fun, taking the piss out of a great band, and at the same time paying loving tribute. This bodes well for the rest of the album, which just might be as enjoyable as Marty Friedman’s similarly buoyant solo album from last year.
Horns Up: Sir Christopher Lee (RIP), Cobalt, the mighty High on Fire.
Horns Down: Ginger Baker, Morbid Angel, the Metal Alliance Tour.
Follow me on Twitter at @basementgalaxy.
Follow Blood & Thunder’s rolling 2015 metal tracks playlist on Spotify.