Frustration, pain, tension and catharsis come in a variety of shapes and colors, though KEN Mode‘s form of exorcising turmoil has long proven to be an infectious form of therapy. Since 1999, the Winnipeg trio has delivered burly sludge metal and harsh noise rock in equal measure, moving ever closer to finding the most potent solution with each release. With 2011’s Venerable, the group drew dangerously close to that critical mass, having refined their attack mode from “Kill Everything Now” to one even sharper and more precise. People noticed — the band’s extra-potent performance won them a Juno Award for Best Metal/Hard Music of the year in 2012, beating out grindcore mainstays Fuck the Facts and thrash legends Anvil. That’s a pretty commendable badge of honor, but the band’s scope and ambition has grown ever wider since then, yielding an even greater achievement in Entrench.
On pure aesthetics, Entrench is not a work of drastic reinvention, the group still delivering the kind of tenderizing blend of post-hardcore riffs and metal punch that have been there from the beginning. Recorded in Seattle with producer Matt Bayles (Isis, Mastodon) and new bassist Andrew LaCour, Entrench more importantly finds KEN Mode exploring the depths of that sound to disparate extremes. It’s, at many points, the band’s most nuanced record, with a wider range of tempos and volumes, as well as a greater instrumental palette. But there’s also a throttling intensity that feels even more urgent before. Essentially, Entrench offers more of everything, taking all of the elements the band did well in the past and dialing them up even more.
It likely comes as a bit of a surprise, then, that the first instrument to be heard on the album is a violin. In context, the intro to opening track “Counter Culture Complex” is an effective tension builder. It’s eight seconds of horror-flick shriek, foreshadowing impending, inescapable violence. And that’s exactly what the band delivers — Shane Matthewson’s snare cracks, his brother Jesse launches into a series of break-neck riffs and bassist Andrew LaCour pounds out some formidable low-end. It’s KEN Mode as one might recognize them, but even more massive, ascending to an anthemic and mighty chorus. It’s a stunning start, and an early highlight, but only begins to scratch the surface of what KEN Mode proves capable. With “The Terror Pulse,” Jesse Matthewson draws out abrasive suspense via shards of dissonant open chords, Shane and LaCour providing the titular pulse just underneath, the menace growing more palpable with each verse. “Romeo Must Never Know” stretches its meditative dirge past 7 minutes, and presenting even subtler hues, touched up by gothic piano. Not that the band necessarily has to let off the gas to show the extent of their growth — the hard-grooving “Daeodon” hits with as much impact as any of their heaviest tracks, but hits a moment of melodic transcendence during its immaculate chorus.
As Anton Chekhov might have observed, if you introduce a string section in the first act, then it better be prepared to use it in the second. KEN Mode do exactly that on the mournful, closing instrumental “Monomyth,” reintroducing strings not just as a callback to “Counter Culture Complex,” but as an elegant construction of texture. It’s the prettiest moment of the record, and an achievement in melodic maturation, which is particularly relevant to the themes at play throughout the album. On Entrench, Jesse Matthewson isn’t seething merely for the sake of doing so, but rather viscerally taking on the challenges of adulthood, tackling grown-ass ideas face first and coming out the other end bloodied, but wiser. The titles of “No; I’m in Control” and “Figure Your Life Out” are statements of purpose, Matthewson in the former facing unnamed phantoms with a spittle-flecked roar of “I am the weapon to usher in your destruction.” On “Counter Culture Complex,” he shrugs off condescension, conceding, “I won’t argue/ I’m not 17 anymore.” Even as he wrestles with moments of self-doubt and fear, as on “Daeodon” (“An attempt to avoid any forward motion/ I wish I could tell you why“), Matthewson ultimately pushes toward progression and steely resolve, standing some terrifying, yet commanding ground in “The Terror Pulse” as he howls “Say goodbye to the man you once knew!”
The extent to which KEN Mode aims for self-improvement by going for the jugular can be fairly intimidating. Onstage, Jesse Matthewson has a wide-eyed gaze that might indicate he’s going for the kill (it is what the K stands for, after all). But all that blood, sweat and adrenaline is routed back into creating something more powerful and cleansing on both an aesthetic and personal level. Heavy music can provide catharsis in any number of ways, but it’s worth noting that KEN Mode does so via realism rather than escapism. There’s a realness about Entrench that makes it cut just a little deeper, and hit a little harder, and for that KEN Mode have achieved a new personal best.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.