What with the return of TFI Friday and The Crystal Maze it would appear that ’90s nostalgia is getting ready to roll in earnest. It’s unlikely that KEN Mode will remember those two particular bastions of UK programming, being from Winnipeg, Manitoba, but on their sixth album the band has decided to pay homage to the sounds and bands that influenced them, and there’s a distinct ’90s grunge and hardcore theme that flavours Success.
Brothers Jesse and Shane Matthewson, along with current bassist Skot Hamilton, have dug back into their record collections (which, on this evidence consist of a lot of Dischord, Touch And Go and Am Rep albums) and produced a record that is entrenched in flannel, angular riffing, and appropriately enough, is an inspired take on the nature of success.
Success is entirely subjective. For bands, is the measure of success signing to a major label and playing enormodomes? Or is it releasing good material and (in typical interview cliché speak) “If anybody thinks it’s good, it’s a bonus”? KEN Mode aren’t exactly putting their cards on the table, but for a band that’s managed to stay in existence since 1999 purely on the basis of hardwork, endless touring and great material, there’s a fairly obvious measure of success in the band’s own history. Delving back into the ’90s is not a bad way to explore these notions of achievement, on a musical level at least. Not since punk had the alternative scene been courted by major labels with such aggression than when grunge exploded. Nirvana and Sonic Youth’s deals with Geffen are the obvious points where the underground shifted towards mainstream success and where art traded off against commerce (although it is arguable that the artistic legacy of both bands outstrips any financial sense of success).
It is perhaps Shudder To Think’s Pony Express Record, released by Epic in 1994, that KEN Mode’s latest effort most resembles, as the band mix up their roots and attempt to concoct something original and vibrant. Eschewing the band’s more direct hardcore leanings, KEN Mode’s approach this time is more complex and raw, yet aims for a skewed accessibility. With Steve Albini at the helm, the band’s sound is vibrant and aggressive, as you would expect from the man who recorded In Utero, Mclusky Does Dallas and who fronted Big Black. These Tight Jeans for example fizzes with aggression, as lines like “I would like to learn how to kill the nicest man in the world” are spat out over the metallic surf-buzz of the guitar, yet a call and response section with Jill Clapham mixed with a keen sense of humour gives the song an undeniably catchy edge.
These nuggets of pop inflection are strewn around the album, often obscured by ranted vocals, the scree of furious guitars, or the deep rattle of the bass but they are there. In the darkened jaunt though a wood at night-time in search of The Owl, the band do their best to be spiky and unsettling, but nestled at the heart of the song is a quite elegant violin section. The refrain of “I just can’t stop thinking about your skin” on I Just Like Fire might be almost vomited out, but achieves a pleasurable rhythmic pulse that jabs its way into the brain.
The focused thrum of Management Control feels tense and agitated, but has purpose and a drive that carries through into the sledgehammer bass assault of A Passive Disaster. At the album’s close is Dead Actors which provides some slight relief after the otherwise aggressive outlook of Success. Although the change of pace is welcome, it’s no reflection on the rest of the album. There might be a song here entitled Failing At Fun Since 1981, but this album is stupidly good fun and, on top of it all, an unmitigated success.