What the fuck is that? A demented shadow person? A medieval executioner? The nightmarish specter of your father asking you why you haven’t eaten your Brussels sprouts? These are the questions you’ll ask yourself as you try in vain to fall asleep tonight, knowing full well that leering figure is definitely not standing right at the foot of your bed. In a way it’s fitting, because KEN mode’s music is equally likely to leave an impression. Formed in 1999, this Canadian trio combine hardcore, sludge metal, and noise rock into a explosive cocktail that could just as easily please fans of both Melvins and Trap Them. They’re intricate, noisy, and definitely angrier than you’d expect from a band formed by a pair of fraternal accountants.
Sadly, after garnering widespread acclaim in the early 2010s with the one-two-fuck-you of 2011’s Venerable and 2013’s Entrench, the band made something of a stylistic misstep with 2015’s Success.1 Dialing up the rock influences, Success lacked the group’s riotous energy and showed vocalist/guitarist Jesse Matthewson adopting an almost spoken word approach. It wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t great either, and it certainly didn’t do justice to the Kill Everyone Now moniker the band lifted from Henry Rollins’s memoir Get in the Van.
Viewed through this lens, Loved is a course correction. This is a reaction album in the same way as Morbid Angel’s last record, an attempt by the band to reclaim their heaviness after releasing something that garnered less-than-stellar reception. Opener “Doesn’t Feel Pain Like He Should” makes this apparent from the start, kicking in with the same acidic shouts and charging drums we last heard on Entrench. Combined with a verse riff that sounds like a charging laser, it’s a great first track that feels like an old friend showing up and punching you in the balls. Follow-up “The Illusion of Dignity” is equally hefty, sounding like a mean-ass Helmet with its stomping pace, leaden chords, and shrill notes that recall a noise rock version of Gojira’s “Explosia.”
The rest of Loved isn’t always as enjoyable, but there’s still fun to be had. Amidst the jarring riffs and tumbling drums that comprise most of these 36 minutes, it soon becomes clear that KEN mode’s real strengths here are the same ones they’ve always had—that is, their raucous attitude and eclectic style. “OH FUCK YEAH!” screams Matthewson during a sludgy breakdown on late highlight “Fractures in Adults,” and suddenly I’m inclined to rip off my work uniform and put my fist through my shitty office computer. Tracks like “Illusion of Dignity” and “This Is a Love Test” even pull a trick from the Idylls playbook by incorporating a goddamn saxophone, with “Love Test” punctuating its lounge music verses with bouts of spastic aggression.
Furthering the variety, “Very Small Men” is a bristling bout of punky energy and snaky licks, while closer “No Gentle Art” spends its eight minutes building from deep thrumming bass to smashing guitars to a loopy saxophone melody. Sadly, not everything is so notable. Beginning with “Feathers & Lips,” there’s an early sequence of three tracks that all feel like filler. Though everything else fares better, the other songs often lack the same propulsive tempos and wacky, spindly riffs that Entrench and Venerable had. In all, there’s a bit too much reliance on abrasive chords that sound too similar to one another. Fortunately, the clear production is a good fit, with the sharp drums, piercing guitars, and acerbic vocals all balanced well and striking like a glass bottle smashed against a brick wall.
Altogether, while Loved doesn’t eclipse KEN mode’s earlier records, it’s a step in the right direction and an enjoyable album in its own right. Old fans are likely to appreciate the return to a more aggressive style, while new listeners who follow bands like Unsane and Today Is the Day are sure to find something to like. There’s plenty of spunk and memorability, but will it make your year-end list? Probably not, unless that list is titled “Creepiest Album Art of the Year (And Possibly Ever).”