KEN Mode – Venerable Review

Since the clamoring of the barbarians at the gates has become increasingly indignant about the tardiness of this KEN Mode review, let me tell you a little story about why you all should be utterly thrilled that this review is dropping some seven months after this incendiary record hit the streets. (Or, if you’re a reader who delights in shouting, Monty Python-like, “Get on with it!” at the slightest hint of authorial digression, I cordially invite you to skip the following two paragraphs.)

Art has always had an uneasy relationship with commerce. Many of us still harbor an idealized vision of the artist as creating her art out of the irrepressible need for personal expression, but when that expression is economically supported by commercial interests, it can be tough to maintain the presumptive purity of vision. That is, we want a portrait of the artist as a misunderstood visionary, not a portrait of the artist, brought to you by your friends at Shell Oil. This unease is hardly new, but neither is it necessarily damning. After all, the lion’s share of our most-cherished classical composers wrote their finest work while on the ledger of wealthy patrons. This was not necessarily the recipe for slavish pet projects or derivative schlock, although one did have to take care not to cheese off the Medici. (Just ask Machiavelli.) Today, the A/V department of Scion provokes just as much thoughtful debate from concerned and engaged artists and consumers as it does kneejerk conservatism from the kind of people who wear a tossed-together anti-capitalist scowl like someone who wouldn’t know Fugazi from Frank Sinatra or their ass from a hole in the ground. Hell, I’m pretty sure that if we dig deep enough through the fossil record, we’ll find evidence of the first Neanderthal to have her cave wall-art shunned for having sold out to Big Antelope. Thus, in many ways, this is an historic and largely insurmountable tension; artists gotta eat, business gotta get busy.

In our little corner of the world, one manifestation of this tension between art and commerce is the relentless cycle of album promotion and the shameless rush to be first out of the gate with a review. From the perspective of labels and PR folks, this makes perfect business sense: you want to get an album out to critics maybe a month or two in advance of its release date so that, hopefully, you’ll get a few reviews published in the weeks prior to release, from which a few quotes will be strategically decontextualized and used to (again, hopefully) drum up more interest for an album. From the perspective of music critics, it makes sense to be among the earliest of published reviews; the fewer the number of reviews out there, the more likely that yours will be one of the most widely-read. And sure, there’s probably a bit of an exhibitionist thrill in possibly seeing five or six of one’s five or six hundred words used in a label’s press release, but this is generally a bullshit way to gain fake prestige. A responsible critic (sidebar: this does not mean you, random blog guy who puked up a “review” of the latest Wolves in the Throne Room approximately two hours after digital copies were sent around) should write a review when (and only when) an album has been thoroughly digested and carefully critiqued. However, due to the hard-drive-exploding glut of new releases and the embarrassing but rather prevalent mentality of ‘vote early and vote often’ (as it were), too often we, as critics, rush to judgment, rush to wrap up that judgment in some snappy prose, and then move on to the next thing without pausing – even for a few days – to see if that judgment sits well and sinks in.

Enter KEN Mode’s Venerable. I bought a copy of the album when it was released way back in March and gave it a few initial spins. It hit me hard, and it hit me immediately, but it didn’t feel like it left much of a lasting impact, and so I set it aside. When the writer who originally signed up for this review couldn’t do it, however, I figured I might give the record another shot. And sweet gut-punching mercy, am I glad I did. Venerable is a pulsating mix of bellowing punk aggression, noise rock skronk, the spindly and searching guitar textures of post-hardcore, and a few expertly-deployed excursions into post-rock (with emphasis on the rock). As such, KEN Mode’s sound is a bit like a highway collision between the classic rosters of Hydra Head and AmRep, but it finds a perfect home on Profound Lore due to the rich depth of its inspiration and the clarity of its execution.

As album opener “Book of Muscle” cranks in with an absolutely disgusting bottom-scraping bass tone, KEN Mode announces both its creepy-crawly and, well, ‘kill everyone now’ intentions. The instrumentation is perfectly taut, bruising through clattery rhythmic figures like a tightly coiled spring just waiting to turn its stasis into kinesis. In fact, I can think of no other recent album that so perfectly oozes tension through and through. Even during the album’s loveliest moments, a constant undercurrent threatens to overwhelm the beauty, as on stunning instrumental piece “Flight of the Echo Hawk,” where the drumming seems to want to run ahead of the shimmering post-rock guitar. A good band can switch from loud to quiet, tense to loose, harsh to gorgeous; a great band can find the loud in the quiet, and can build a house where the harsh and the gorgeous make a dwelling together.

Jesse Matthewson’s lyrics are excellent throughout, and while they draw primarily from the idiom of hardcore, they don’t shy away from allowing a bit of wounded vulnerability into the otherwise defiant admonitions. This means that we get not just belligerent challenges like “You all can walk away / But I won’t fail this time” (“The Irate Jumbuck”), but also world-weary laments like “I’ve been spreading myself thin again / And very little is getting the attention it deserves” (“Book of Muscle”). Brilliant musical moments abound as the fitting vehicle for Matthewson’s disgust for the quotidian, like the fierce shimmy of “A Wicked Pike,” with those brilliant chiming guitar tones that sit atop the deeply-spat vocals, or the tumbling Converge-esque melodies and stuttering rhythms of “Obeying the Iron Will…” (the latter comparison being perhaps all the more apt for the always-sterling work of Kurt Ballou in the producer’s chair).  Even as humble a sentiment as “Life is too short for second best” sounds outright seething in the proper musical context of “Obeying the Iron Will…”

Despite these fantastic songs, the patient stalk of “Never Was” is the highlight, and it’s one that shines all the more brightly for its relative simplicity, again demonstrating KEN Mode’s absolute mastery of stretched-just-short-of-snapping tautness. Try a little experiment: Settle down in a quiet place with this song cranked up to a reasonably hefty volume. Let the soft stretches wash over you, and lose yourself in Matthewson’s whisper. “Religion is a cancer,” he intones twice. SNAP. That’s the sound of your neck whipping involuntarily forward as a single, devastating, perfect snare hit crashes around your head like a hammer blow straight from Thor’s hand to your doorstep.

So, who knows? If I had written this review seven months ago, maybe I would have said a lot of the same things, or maybe I would have blown it off entirely. Either way, though, the torrid swell of commerce would have rushed and unduly colored my experience of this art. Revisiting Venerable with fresh ears found in it a wealth of nuance, confident songwriting, and straight-up fuck-your-mother attitude. None of this is the result of some immaculate conception or the pull of a waning gibbous moon, though. The expert tension and fiery outbursts of Venerable are the result of a hard-working rock band breathing in the bedlam of everyday life and transmuting it into something goddamn near profound.

(As happy coincidence would have it, KEN Mode is just now in the middle of a tour with The Atlas Moth. Feel free to give their art some of your commerce.)

Posted by Dan Obstkrieg

Happily committed to the foolish pursuit of words about sounds. Not actually a dinosaur.

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