KEN mode – NULL Review

No, this album has nothing to do with our favorite sponge friend. Yes, this album has everything to do with three angry Canadians FOUR angry Canadians now that KEN mode has promoted Kathryn Kerr, a one woman wrecking ball of saxophone, synth, and piano prowess, previously guest-credited on 2018’s Loved. Did you think that KEN mode would go full saxcore after that experimental sludgeball? Well, I bet your 2022 bingo card is all kinds of fucked up at this point, so let’s make this one easy: KEN modeor more accurately, primary bleeding heart Jesse Matthewson—hated the past couple years and it shows. Thankfully, that means that NULL doesn’t waste any time taking a cold thumb to an unsuspecting hole to prod for a pulse, a pulse that will surely be spiking through until Matthewson’s last labored lashing drowns away in an unsettled hiss.

KEN mode has changed since releasing their first album over 20 years ago, a much more screechy affair that leaned on sludge as a palate cleanser. No longer just a digestif—a transformation solidified by Loved and a pandemic—NULL, while recognizably the same band, leads head first with a floor stabbed by thick bass rumbles, hypnotic, brutish chugs, throbbing synth simmers, and a ceiling shattered by Kerr’s woodwind wail. Matthewson, with sledgehammer precision, maintains steady interjections of effects-saturated guitar bend freakouts but at a pace guided by his hypnotic, negative affirmations to deception and control. Cynicism blisters the surface of bitter repetitions like “this was a mistake” (“A Love Letter”) and ” I don’t believe that you mean well” (“Losing Grip”). This venomous collection of songs must be read, shouted, and bled.

Continuing to hone their exacting chaos, KEN mode plunges into the anguished waters of industrial and no wave hostility. Subtle flickers of modulated hisses tear alongside Scott Hamilton’s ground-cracking bass rattle, adding additional caustic energy to prevent anything from feeling like a Loved B-side (“But They Respect My Tactics,” “Not My Fault”). The one-two punch that opens NULL, while righteous in assault and renewed with wild sax energy, crumbles quickly under the heft of the teeming “The Tie,” as scathing programmed utterances growl and howl along Matthewson’s paranoid refrain “…or maybe they always knew that this never actually mattered…” Reprising this harrowing energy, KEN mode pounds the walls in vain with the explosive “Unresponsive”—the kind of violent, full-chested uprising that has no loudness limit, despite falling on deaf ears.

Most importantly, though, KEN mode embraces the multimedia experience that an album can afford us. Metalheads by nature understand this, as gratuitous personas defined early iterations the genre, and, today, remain part of many sects of metal worship.1 While these Canadian punks don’t participate in that sort of brimstone and leather imagery, they do encapsulate well their own twisted missions with pen and canvas. Each brooding moment of NULL breathes the corroded exasperations of the dead-eyed, frighteningly-toothed cover monster who has grown more humanoid since its time as a grimace-grinned shadow. Every jagged, Voivod-ian bass riff, every Painkiller-drenched mutilated sax squeal, every Helmet-on-bath-salts groove-shift recalls the bleakness and emotional decay of this time-released demon. “Lost Grip” captures in the most complete of sense the struggle, in a post rock Neurosis fashion, as Matthewson wrestles the all too modern crisis of racing toward a shattered future that we’ve done nothing to prevent. “We deserve this” indeed.

NULL doesn’t offer any hope, so if you’re looking to feel tension and release in the same sitting, put your ears elsewhere. KEN mode finds catharsis in roaring at stone walls, veins engorged, knuckles constricted—you could bounce a quarter off their exhaled anger. Yet, in their own lane, KEN mode has come a long way since their youthful, rowdy inception, which can feel light-hearted in comparison. Along the way, they’ve lit the path for other noise-adjacent, sludge-adjacent acts, like the fledgling Chat Pile, who still show the playfulness of band who has simply seen less days. It takes time to build a callous. It takes time to watch it tear away and grow back again. There’s a nuance to pain that only time can reveal. KEN mode isn’t done exploring though. In fact, they have full intention to release a partner album to NULL2 next year. I’ll be ready for that when it drops, but you’ll have to come pry NULL from tightly clenched fists… and you know it’ll be watching.

Rating: 4.0/5.0
DR: 7 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Artoffact Records | Bandcamp
Websites: | |
Releases Worldwide: September 23rd, 2022

Show 2 footnotes

  1. Like the forest-dwelling Norwegians who litter the promo bin.
  2. VOID.
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