KEN mode – NULL Review

[Cover art by Randy Ortiz]

“I don’t believe that you mean well”

That lyric perfectly sums up KEN mode’s eighth album. The artists involved don’t feel the world has their best interests in mind, and quite frankly, this album doesn’t have yours in mind either. For those that don’t know, the KEN part of the band’s name stands for Kill Everything Now. With a name like that, you can expect a robot’s focus on noise and 1,200 John McEnroes worth of hostility. Up to this point in their career, that is absolutely what this Winnipeg (now) quartet has delivered. With NULL, however, the overall tone has shifted. A despondency has crept into the proceedings to provide underpinnings of frustration and sadness into the rage delivered on a greater scale. They may still be killing everything now but that blind rage that could murder with bare hands has turned into a weeping gun against a temple.

Release date: September 23, 2022. Label: Artoffact Records.
Turning Kathryn Kerr from a regular contributor to a full-time member has surely helped in achieving this new level of wretchedness. Kerr’s nails-on-a-chalkboard approach to playing the saxophone is not new for KEN mode but is implemented at perfect times throughout NULL to abrasively smash through pulsing rhythms and collapse your brain. Her permanent role sees an expanded use of keys and other noise-making elements to build more mood between the other players.

No song exemplifies this better than the 10+ minute slow burn of “Lost Grip.” It starts with feedback and a slow ominous bass before easing into a regular pattern of military drum rolls. As they tap in, you almost expect to hear a 21-gun salute for this funeral service underway. Kerr enters the fold with downright sad piano notes plinking into the pattern like tears. As it builds, the band ropes ugly tonal notes that sound like the dramatic closing music from Terminator 2 as the camera streaks over the blacktop. Around 4:30, the bass picks up, the noise effects drop out and rage reenters the picture. The repeated line of “we deserve this” earns an angrier delivery from vocalist/guitarist Jesse Mathewson but is supported by Kerr’s voice, making it even more powerful. That heaviness builds and builds for a time before that steady bass comes back and the song devolves into letting those piano notes ring in a more solitary manner. At the same time, Mathewson pivots to a form of spoken word that simply sounds like giving up. The song peters out to spaced-out industrial pulses and single drum beats like a dying heart. The ebb and flow of “Lost Grip” is like the early steps of processing grief, where sadness and rage blend into a singular experience.

NULL by KEN mode

Matthewson’s vocals have shifted ever so slightly as well. 2018’s Loved has more venom while NULL harbors a bit more variety. As often as he unleashes a full scream, he isn’t afraid to sound like he’s on the verge of tears or ranting like a lunatic preacher on a street corner. His voice going soft is just as chilling as it when it goes loud. That understated sense of despair makes perfect sense when you see lyrics like these:

  • “It was a mistake to ask me for help.”
  • “This untasteful place. Something is broken. Something is fucked.”
  • “This never actually mattered at all.”
  • “Whatever gets you talking more. We’re trying to get you engaged with our platform.”
  • “This is a dying land and we don’t care. We never did.”
  • “I’m unraveling so much faster than I used to.”
  • “Forgotten. Erased. Unresponsive. Replaced. Abandoned.”

For longtime KEN mode fans, you need not fret that the lengthy song discussed above is somehow indicative of the entire album. While the mood shift is present throughout, the band still knows how to blast listeners with pure discordant noise and straight-for-the-throat metallic hardcore. “Throw Your Phone In The River” is a two-minute burner chock full of jagged rhythms and off-kilter drums, and “Not My Fault” kicks off with a groove-laden hypnotic riff that harkens to Isis’ heyday along with an unexpected clean exploratory section. Noise pollution is in no short order as “The Tie” produces a collection of sounds that will make your eye twitch if you listen at a high volume. That track also sees Kerr’s saxophone make sounds that can only be described as an upsetting form of crying. “Unresponsive” also rests comfortably in a world of noise as it brings the album to a close. The drums are slow and steady, sounding like they are perpetually on the verge of collapse while every other instrument seems to be falling apart around them. Additional noises are laced within that skitter across the mix like a facehugger trying to find a throat to fuck. Everything about “Unresponsive” is appropriately unpleasant to wind a violently distraught album to a close.

As a heavy music fan, you have inevitably been questioned about what you could possibly get out of such sad, angry, deranged, whatever music. More often than not, a major contributor to the fandom is catharsis. The most pissed-off music gives us a release valve for our own frustrations and makes us feel a little bit better. NULL is so bleak that I’m not really sure it can do that. This album will make you more depressed or angry at the world.

This is miserable music for miserable people.

Posted by Spencer Hotz

Admirer of the weird, the bizarre and the heavy, but so are you. Why else would you be here?

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