Massively distorted, hideously brutal post-hardcore and noise rock bands don’t seem quite as prevalent today as they once were. In the early ’90s, you couldn’t toss a Frank Kozik print east of the Mississippi without hitting a veteran of the Amphetamine Reptile or Touch and Go roster. Yet there have been some recent signs that these abrasive rumbles are alive and well, if not a little bruised and battered (which is sort of the point, after all). Pissed Jeans, for one, are keeping the flame of churning, masochistic punk alive, while Seattle’s Akimbo have paired it with epic tales of shark attacks. Steve Albini’s still an endearing asshole, and The Jesus Lizard even got back together for a reunion tour. Yet while they’ve done so without as much fanfare or press, Winnipeg’s KEN Mode have been delivering blistering, musical gut-punches for more than a decade, and they’ve arguably been the ones doing it best.
Boasting more impressive technical chops than Unsane, a greater metal influence than The Jesus Lizard and far more low end than Shellac would know what to do with, KEN Mode is a destructive and menacing force. And while the band’s fourth album, Venerable, boasts production by Converge’s Kurt Ballou, the group isn’t as explicitly metal as many of the other bands that have had the pleasure of working with him. And for that matter, KEN Mode explores none of the black metal territory that so many of their Profound Lore labelmates tread. They exist to pack a visceral, pyrotechnic wallop, and they more than deliver on that promise on Venerable.
Venerable begins not with a bang, but with a rumble, a ten-ton bassline shaking and angrily groaning on first track “Book of Muscle” before the introduction of some equally heavy and furious guitar riffs. Muscle is precisely what the band serves up here, though its slow churn is cast aside in favor of faster tempos and dazzlingly abrasive fretwork on the amazing “Obeying the Iron Will…”. During that song’s bridge, vocalist Jesse Matthewson breaks from his maniacal barks to chant “life is too short for second best,” but it’s a fleeting moment of calm. In next song “Batholith,” he’s back to his throaty growl, which pairs perfectly with the kind of careening, high-speed death trip that song offers. Yet those guttural bellows are tempered down to a hoarse shout on “A Wicked Pike,” a fiery rave-up in which the band hovers just slightly closer to catchy.
There aren’t many moments of respite on Venerable, but while the first five songs suggest KEN Mode has little use for restraint, its second half reveals a more atmospheric, textured side to the band. The instrumental “Flight of the Echo Hawk” is neither pummeling nor incendiary, rather a moodier hard rock piece that maintains a sense of intensity while exploring a more spacious progression. Likewise, “Terrify the Animals” is an eerie exercise in quiet horror, all ringing, minor key loops of guitar and strange harmonics floating above a burly chug. While it never explodes to the level of “Iron Will” or “Wicked Pike,” it goes for the viscera all the same.
Use of a title like Venerable for an album so misanthropic and fearsome may indicate a hint of irony, yet there’s something highly respectable about a band able to put shrieking riffs and bowel-distressing basslines through their sausage grinder and have it come out this amazing. Let’s have three cheers for KEN Mode, keeping noise rock alive and terrifying and, most importantly in their case, unique.
Stream: KEN Mode – Venerable
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.