I like to tell people I’m not a heavy metal fan, but it’s not strictly true. First I was. Then I wasn’t. Now, I’m secretly a fan. I can trust you with that secret, can’t I? My metallic history starts right before hair metal, when Iron Maiden and Judas Priest were on top, just before the LA-based hair metal wave broke. I got sucked in to spandex-clad, teased-hair brand names of that period. Now, I’m a cyclist, a spandex-clad helmet-hair user of brand names, completely different. Hair metal bored me, eventually, since each new LA-based hair metal band seemed different only in their custom-painted, oddly-shaped guitars. I left heavy metal behind. Hardcore punk didn’t quite satisfy either. It was aggressive, but where hair metal was about looking the part, hardcore was about yelling the part. I can’t yell that much for fear of being addicted to cough drops. If neither one works, what’s next? How about both at once: metallic hardcore? Count me in! That brings me to KEN Mode, specifically, their recently released album Entrench.
In my very first blog post many weeks ago (it felt longer), I wrote about Converge. Converge left me smelling white pepper. KEN Mode leaves me about to sneeze. That comparison tells you nothing about the music, but everything about my mildly scrambled brain. Converge is from Boston. KEN Mode is from Winnipeg. Obviously Winnipeg puts more allergens in their metallic hardcore.
So what, really, is metallic hardcore or metalcore? From hardcore, it takes a kind of yelled/growled vocals that are more human sounding than shrieks or Cookie Monster vocals. Hardcore also provides the general rhythmic structure, fast-ish and regular, but riding on top of this is another metal-derived rhythmic structure made up of the emphasized bass notes or drum beats. In other words, polyrhythm. Basically, the hardcore portion gets you jiggling while the metal-emphasis gives you reason to whip your hair back and forth. Add in guitars that sound like dissonant power tools the size of jet planes and topics that are full of personal anguish or anger and you’ve got metallic hardcore, along with 4.5 billion related metal subgenres. To my ears, the key difference is the genuine specific emotion in metallic hardcore as compared to the more generalized vaguer emotion for other styles of metal.
So, who/what is KEN Mode? It’s a band of two Canadian brothers, Jesse Mathewson (vocals/guitar) and Shane Mathewson (drums), and one American bassist, Andrew LaCour. They’ve won the Juno award, album of the year in Heavy Metal/Hard Music, for their fourth album Venerable. Here, Juno is not the eponymous teen from that cute movie, but a prestigious award for Canadian bands. The “KEN” part of their band name stands for “Kill Everyone Now” … hold off on the eye rolling … inspired, perhaps, by the song by fellow Canadian brother-based punk band Nomeansno. To be fair, “fellow Canadian” is about as precise as saying Hüsker Dü (from Minneapolis) shares something with the Dead Kennedys (from San Francisco).
On their fifth album, Entrench, KEN Mode improves upon the prior album, Venerable (produced by metalcore god Kurt Ballou). For a one song overview of the album, “No; I’m in Control” gives you the aggressive fuzzy guitar/bass, a personally-anguished non-Satanic vocal and a defiantly chantable lyric (also the title). Immediately afterwards, you’re greeted by a more conventional extreme metal song “Your Heartwarming Story Makes Me Sick”. More conventional is not bad, it’s just a little less distinctive. More distinctively hardcore is “The Terror Pulse” where a dissonant guitar chord sounds enough like a train whistle that I panicked about a train that would have been several miles from the nearest track. “Romeo Must Never Know” shows the virtuousity of the band, not in any flamboyant runs, but it in the way they translate a harsh sound into a more contemplative song complete with acoustic guitar and piano. It’s many, not all, of the above-mentioned metallic hardcore elements, but at 3, instead of 10. It should terrify me, but “Secret Vasectomy” infects me sonically and neurologically, leaving me both exhausted and sneezy.
On the whole, this reminds me of a metallic version of Pissed Jeans where actual adults sing about actual adult things, using a genre thought to serve rebellious youth. If I were me, I’d buy it, but not again. One copy is enough.