Review Summary: A culmination of everything the band have worked towards all their career and a shining example of how underground guitar music is ever-evolving.
Months before its release, KEN Mode’s seventh full length studio album, ‘Loved’, was making an impression on the power-trio’s cult following. Featuring a phantasm of nightmarish sorts, everything about the black clad, near formless ghoul plastered on the cover is unsettling, and brought about a buzz as they revealed the image promotionally. A maniacal expression in the beady eyes and wide, toothy smile is perhaps the most disconcerting aspect, showing a juxtaposition of an intense, swallowing darkness coupled with a sick, horrific humor. Vocalist and guitarist Jesse Matthewson has laid down the gauntlet on what it means to live in the ***ed up pony show our collective reality in 2018 presents us, stating in an interview, “…if you’re not laughing these days, you’re probably crying.”
By the end of its second song, “The Illusion Of Dignity”, a listener will know ‘Loved’ encapsulates this dichotomy of heighted emotional frenzy. Newcomers to the band’s sound will be bludgeoned by an overwhelming mix of white noise riffs colliding with borderline abusive drumming and stomach churning low end. Even those familiar with the band’s back catalogue will be surprised at a certain finesse that a 15 year career molds, with ‘Loved’ displaying a growth in instrumentation, sonic vision, and songwriting. These nine tracks are the latest version of KEN Mode’s signature noise-laden hardcore assault as they crystalize their most nuanced extremes, while peppering in some experimentation. One-two punches like “Learning To Be Too Cold” and “Very Small Men” offer a twisted approach on the aggressive styles laid upon by decades of pure hardcore punk ethos, switching with ease between upper register harsh melodic structure and punishing down-tuned galloping riffage in short, sweet form. Album opener “Doesn’t Feel Pain Like He Should” exemplifies KEN Mode barely containing their monstrous tone as waves of feedback radiate the background of the song, with uneasy, tremolo picked chords and a punishing, unexpected sludge-like outro whizzing by with addictive dissonance that begs repeated listens to fully grasp.
Further along the tracklist, “This Is A Love Test” and closer “No Gentle Art” offer slow burning climaxes including saxophone, contextualizing the traditional sake of noise via amplifiers and pedals with strained brass, adding a jarring, dissociative compliment to the rest of the band. But while “…Test” is reminiscent of classics from earlier records (“Romeo Must Never Know” or “Capricorn” come to mind) in its dirge, using the beautiful timbre of the instrument to fuel a comparative respite to the rest of the album, “…Art” and the aforementioned “The Illusion Of Dignity” stretch it’s musical limits. Becoming frayed and unruly at peak points in both tracks, presented on top of crescendos of guitar and bass distortion coupled with absolutely visceral screaming and powerhouse drumming, the aural presentation is downright perturbing in these instances. Sandwiched in between is the sparse, murky “Fractures In Adults”, offering a whirlwind of chord progressions and a bending, soaring single note guitar line that could very well be the musical accompaniment to one getting sea sick.
These examples tell a story of a well put together record, obviously arranged by veterans who know their songs and where the differences in each will shine. From razor sharp and lightning fast to sinking, crushing numbers, ‘Loved” bookends each moment carefully together for complete, if chaotic and terrifying, experiences. With this level of commitment in their craft, it’s no surprise how clear and precise ‘Loved’ sounds, even with all that is going on musically. Shane Matthewson’s drumming is never washed out, with cymbal hits and tom fills front and center. The details in his hits, whether from a mere accent to sheer hammering down upon the skins can be more than heard - they are felt within these songs. Scott Hamilton’s murky bass is probably the most important underlying feature of all the record, being the messy foreground on which all other hissing, chainsaw like cacophony needs to be built on in order for those musical tonalities to really hit their mark. Jesse’s vocals are truly remarkable here, because after six previous records, he is articulating every sarcastic, downtrodden lyric to throat shredding degrees in a more extreme performance than on any other KEN Mode outing.
As the second shortest output in KEN Modes’ discography, ‘Loved’ cuts no corners, does not overstay its welcome, and presents us with its intentions from the instant it begins. More often than not, ‘Loved’ is not just a culmination of everything the band has worked towards all their career, but a shining example of how underground guitar music is ever evolving…even if that evolution is a necessary reflection of the desperate and unsettling circumstances a seemingly state of decay human kind can find itself in. This music is the sonic equivalent of staring those circumstances in the face with a battered, coldhearted grin.