VOID by KEN modeRelease date: September 22, 2023
Label: Artoffact Records
On their eighth album, NULL (2022), KEN mode addressed the anxiety and depression that the COVID-19 lockdown caused guitarist and lead vocalist Jesse Matthewson. That album’s direct follow-up, VOID, deals with the feelings of “disappointment and sadness” that the latter stages of lockdown and the period following it have instilled in him. Perhaps inevitably, the tone of VOID is less directly furious than that of NULL. There is just as much darkness to it, but it is a darkness borne of despair, rather than anger.
On opening track ‘The Shrike’, Matthewson’s guitars come through loud and clear, and they have the thick, sludgy sound to them that KEN mode have been making their trademark ever since their impressive debut album, Mongrel (2003). In the press release announcing the album, the band say the intent was for the song to function as the band’s “version of a classic driving rock song. Equal parts Drive Like Jehu and QOTSA”. It certainly achieves this aim, but in addition, the song’s central riff recalls that of ‘Monkey Trick’ from The Jesus Lizard’s Goat (1991).
‘The Shrike’ is followed by ‘Painless’, a loud, heavy, two-and-a-half-minute noise metal song that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on earlier KEN mode albums like Success (2015) and Loved (2018). For a band who have been fairly transparent about their desire to innovate sonically on both this album and its predecessor, they still do an admirable job of giving their fans the sound they know and love.
On eight-minute epic ‘These Wires’, the addition of multi-instrumentalist Kathryn Kerr to KEN mode’s line-up proves to be a shrewd decision, as her pianos help to underscore the bleakness of Matthewson’s vocals when he sings lines like “will this never end?” On the instrumental ‘We’re Small Enough’, she even plays some synths. The bleak tone of the guitars and vocals continues throughout, Kerr’s saxophones enhancing the off-kilter nature of the feedback emitted from Matthewson’s amp. The two of them continue to play their respective instruments symbiotically towards the end of the angry-sounding ‘I Cannot’.
The vocals take on a dark melodicism on ‘A Reluctance of Being’ with the tuneful intonation of lines such as “I can feel my senses dull/Every waking moment hurts/Just a little bit more/And we’re never gonna be okay.” A little before the three-minute mark, bassist Skot Hamilton and drummer Shane Matthewson start playing, and the previously contemplative song starts to become more of the kind of heavy, abrasive, rage-fuelled track for which KEN mode have become known.
This gives way to ‘He Was a Good Man, He Was a Taxpayer’, one of the least ‘KEN mode-sounding’ songs of KEN mode’s discography to date. Andrew Schneider gives the song an uncharacteristically clean production job, Hamilton’s bass is slightly reminiscent of Killing Joke, and Matthewson’s guitar sounds almost melodic in places.
The album closes with ‘Not Today, Old Friend’, a slow, haunting song with a Slint-esque bassline and eerie piano and saxophone-playing from Kerr. The song may be more subtle than what we’re used to hearing from KEN mode, but that doesn’t make it any less powerful. The song’s bleak tone helps it make for an appropriately downbeat conclusion to a record that deals with “disappointment and sadness”.
On VOID, KEN mode continue the sonic and thematic experimentation they began on NULL at an even greater level. Kerr enhances the band’s musical versatility more than she did on the earlier album, her piano-playing in particular reflecting the bleakness of the record’s overarching themes. Although the overall tempo and mood of the album is slower and more contemplative than anything the band have done before, Jesse Matthewson’s guitar work is still as heavy and abrasive as ever at several points. Overall, VOID shows KEN mode to be a band relentlessly focused on moving forward, rather than standing still, after nine albums.