Album Review: KEN mode – Void

[Artoffact; 2023]

Last year’s NULL album from Canadian noise rock outfit KEN mode was brutal, visceral, and unrelenting. Their eighth studio album showed no signs of letting go their signature intensity. Thankfully, neither does VOID a companion piece album that was written and recorded at the same time. This is a more introspective record for the most part, a little more pensive in places, but it’s ferocious to the core. There is an observable fragility here, even though we’re in the eye of the storm, and a sense of inevitability and futility that is lacking from most of the band’s output. They’ve always dealt in extremes of emotion – usually in the realms of negativity, naturally – but there’s a recurring sense of melancholic vitriol here. This overarching tone never gets too much to bear, largely due to the album’s focus and efficiency.  

Isolation is the main thematic thread at the core of the record. A keen sense of individual fragmentation from any sense of unified collective identity, an awareness of the futility of things, and of the degrees of separation between humans. Jesse Matthewson’s howled words on “Painless” tell us that “You are on your own” while the stark “A lifetime of being, crumbling down” on “A Reluctance of Being” offers a clear sense of the internalised nihilism across the record. There’s an occasional lashing out herein, with “I Cannot” being the obvious example of this, but for the most part we are dealing with issues of internalised struggle. 

“The Shrike” kicks thing off in glorious fashion, a simple, incessant riff creating a sense of claustrophobia as it loops back in on itself without much by way of progress being made. We’re in a downward spiral, confirmed by the lyric “This cyclical nightmare / An altered state under attack” The distorted guitar notes that bend downwards create an oppressive feeling, like threatening aircraft overhead. 

“These Wires” is a rarity in the KEN mode arsenal as it just doesn’t flow. The track feels disjointed; as though its constituent parts were written in separate spaces and they’re here together as some elaborate cut and paste exercise. It feels clinical as a result, less organic and slightly contrived. Maybe that’s the point. 

“I Cannot” is the most anguished song here. An intense post-metal riff heralds in venomous lyrics that seem to be about climate change and the reluctance of those in power to acknowledge our fate. “So painfully stubborn / Zero re-adjustment / No refocus / Just negligent entitlement” sums it all up pretty accurately. As the riffs continue to pulverise as the track nears its conclusion, a squealing saxophone joins the throng, like Gato Barbieri conjuring up one last dying breath. It’s an abrasive finale, and elevates the track to a new spiritual place. 

NULL and VOID (quite obviously) work best when sat next to each other. The former represents the inherent fight in all of us, the latter is the acceptance of our inevitable defeat. Despite the pessimistic – or realistic, depending on your viewpoint – tone of VOID there remains a spark of humanity at its core that burns brightly. Okay, there’s a clear sense of melancholy throughout, but it’s in our broken moments that we often feel most alive. Sometimes. 

Album closer “Not Today, Old Friend” is a slow, Slint-esque and meandering post-rock spoken word piece that further demonstrates the band’s ability in bridging genre tropes without fear of ever being derivative. This shift in sonic territory is nothing new for the band, but it once again highlights a difficulty in easily classifying, and thereby limiting, what KEN mode can do.

VOID is a twisting chimera of a record as it skips through post-metal on “I Cannot”, to post-rock on “Not Today, Old Friend”, to math rock on “We’re Small Enough”, while never once feeling like anything other than a KEN mode record. As with every release by the band, it’s a juggernaut of a record and quite a journey from beginning to end.