As a teenage metaller/grunger in the 90s, I’d get springboards to new music from T-shirts the kingpins of the day would wear in Kerrang!, Metal Hammer, Hit Parader and Raw. Ah, there’s Kurt in a Tad T-shirt, Eddie Vedder wearing a Butthole Surfers tee, Phil Anselmo in his never-ending supply of US hardcore shirts. It was one big communal back-slap, hashtags before I’d even heard of the internet.
I got a reversal of that yesterday hearing KEN mode for the first time. Thumbing through Spotify’s new releases (hardly crate-digging, I know), I found Success beside Beck’s new one and got my head kicked right back to the first time hearing dirtbags like Jesus Lizard, Big Black and Butthole Surfers. First track Blessed comes in on a drum beat like two winos falling down the stairs, with squally feedback, gravelly distorted bass and off-time guitar that sounds like it’s played with a hacksaw. The phlegmy rant, “We can play this game a little bit longer, but we aaaalllll know we’re not welcome here” seals the deal.
The first Google search brings up a picture of these three, with one of the dudes wearing the Therapy? Pleasure Death T-shirt I had when I was about 15. A bit of positive discrimination then, but KEN Mode’s Success takes me way past memory lane. First up, it’s recorded by Steve Albini, so it’s dense and grainy, with singer Jesse Matthewson spitting at you from behind if you listen to it on headphones. It’s the sixth album by the trio from Manitoba, Canada, whose ‘KEN’ tag is nicked from Henry Rollins’ Kill Everyone Now passage in his memoir Get in the Van. On the go since 2003, they’ve all the noise-rock pointers, with side-steps in doom, drone, hardcore, death metal and a few deranged wormholes worthy of Mike Patton.
From the suited drone with his head in his hands on the cover, to song titles like Management Control and A Catalog of Small Disappointments, Success is largely a sneery comment on drudgery, blowing snot all over the idea of clocking in to zonked-out 9-to-5 factory and office jobs, and the weekend that doesn’t claw anything back. It’s not all atonal vitriol – Failing At Fun Since 1981 is rapid-fire catchy-ish punk, and the chorus of Management Control could be Tim from Les Savy Fav fist-pumping on top of the drum kit. The first half of Dead Actors is a type of slow jam from the Fugazi songbook, with high-fret guitar motifs and dubby bass pinning it down. These are only interludes though, Success hits harder when it gets to the dark heart of the matter. They’re not as feral as Jesus Lizard, but they’re getting there.