A quick personal story:
On my first listen through of Success, I found myself waiting at a crosswalk. I was fidgeting with my bike, jostling up and down in time with “These Tight Jeans” or “The Owl”. Soon, with a bit of creeping paranoia, I realized that the only other person waiting on the streetlight with me was an ex of mine. This was a person I had meant to patch things up with, but the air always became awkward when we were around each other, one of us attempting to wait out the other. Should I be the one, finally, to exert the energy and stop the ice between us? I thought about it for a moment, then KEN Mode took over and said “Naaaaaah”. There was simply too much anti-social rage in the sounds ringing through my headphones to try to strike up pointless small talk, instead I kept jittering away to the music and sped off.
Success’ title is strikingly ironic, as the album turns a piercing light onto everything the average Joe thinks constitutes success. Job security? It doesn’t exist anymore, buddy. Relaxing days at home? Don’t you realize you’re getting closer and closer to death? Money? It’s as destructive as it is helpful, ditto that sentiment for sex. If all of this seems to be festering in an awful negative space, it’s because it is. That might be construed as a bad thing, but Success is 2015’s angriest screech of distrust, rage and failure all wound up into one wonderfully cathartic ball.
All that ain’t surprising when the “KEN” in KEN Mode stands for Kill Everyone Now, and their best song remains a little ditty called “Counter Culture Complex”, but Success’s vitriol is a steaming mess, even by their high standards. As pointed out by Adrien Begrand over on the Blood and Thunder column, this is KEN Mode forgoing all restraints and crashing head on into pure noise rock. Nothing quite gets the sludge or speed of their last outing Entrenched, and it is a bit disappointing to not get another metal rave up, but they more than make up for it.
With help from noise king Steve Albini, KEN Mode channel all the heavy hitters: Big Black, Drive like Jehu, and, most importantly, The Jesus Lizard. Jesse Matthewson’s leathery howl takes on David Yow’s twisted characteristics, lending “I Just Liked Fire” and “Failing at Fun Since 1981” a spitting, venomous quality. “I Just Liked Fire”, the shortest and most rapid fire track here, is KEN Mode’s anti-ode to romance, with Matthewson taking Gang of Four’s “Sometimes I’m thinking that I love you / But I know it’s only lust” to its logical and destructive conclusion. Matthewson’s creep factor as he screeches “I CAN’T I CAN’T STOP THINKING ABOUT YOUR SKIN” is only matched by the filthy guitar and bass work. The nearly bluesy “The Owl” has Matthewson playing a noise-rocker version of Tom Waits, intoning strange threats over a swinging bass line, before the chorus erupts with scatterbrained guitar.
Success’s engine is disgust and discomfort, dissecting the small pleasures of life until they’re unrecognizable. “A day in southern Manitoba could not be more sublime”, sneers Matthewson on “A Passive Disaster”, delivering an uncomfortable veneer of normalcy. If the title didn’t tip you off that all’s not right, then the bass hinting at unsaid violence will. On “These Tight Jeans”, the first words Matthewson rips out of his lips are “I would like to kill the nicest man in the world”. He could, of course, be talking about any number of smiley heads in suits and ties, but the desperation of the album points to Matthewson choking out the Yes man in his own head. Another voice provided by Jill Clapham (who sounds awesomely like Kathleen Hanna) chimes in, “pointless negativity on demand!” as Matthewson forcibly removes any semblance of civilization from his head.
Matthewson takes center stage, thanks to his injection of howls into his voice and guitar, but this massive destruction couldn’t have been pulled off by one man. Jesse’s brother, Shane, excels with rolling drum fills and a general feeling of sludge, all weighted down by his lead-heavy playing. That’s further accented by bassist Skot Hamilton, who counterbalances Jesse’s shuddering guitar with head-crunching licks. Success doesn’t let a single moment of rest break into the album’s harsh container. KEN Mode properly (if accidently) describes it all as a “battering ram of perpetual loss” on opener “Blessed”. “Blessed” might just be the song to cull together all the wonderful nastiness of Success into one blackened track: screeching guitars, a concrete covered bass, thumping drums, and that ever so ironic title being shouted over and over again. Subtlety? They don’t want any. This is the music to drown out all other stimuli, and have a hell of a time while doing it.