KEN mode’s real success has always been their live show. The Winnipeg natives have been together for over 12 years, and have been road-dogging almost consistently since they began touring for their previous album, Entrench, in 2013. It makes sense, then, that brothers Jesse and Shane Matthewson, and their newest bassist, Skot Hamilton, would decide to record with Steve Albini in order to capture their ferocious live sound. Success has been treated as a departure from the band’s sound, and it is of course different from their previous record Entrench‘s dirtied-up, metallic hardcore. But Success is really a return to the band’s roots in noise rock—just a little more tightly controlled than before.
The difference in production really stands out with Success, with each instrument on the record showing up more clearly than before. It seems like the noise part of this record is expressed more in planned explosions than the all-out rumble and scream of KEN mode’s earlier records. “These Tight Jeans” is evidence of that, starting out with just a quiet buzz of a guitar before bringing in a big, hulking forward-driving bass line just a little reminiscent of Jesus Lizard. And on Success—especially on album highlight “Blessed”—you’ll find other references to the ’90s noise rock heyday, from AmRep to Shellac themselves. KEN mode were never exactly metal anyway, and this record places them much further into the post-hardcore camp.
Albini’s pulled the most Shellac-like elements from KEN mode—from the ugly bass to the way vocals lay over the mix of the instruments—compounding the band’s nasty outlook on life. On KEN mode’s most recent albums, Jesse Matthewson has found his voice, going from an effects-laden scream to his trademark talk-sung, vitriol-filled lyrics. On Success, they’re right up front in the mix, highlighting Matthewson’s observations on what success means for typical Canadian dudes nearing their 30s, as well as the emptiness inherent in success. Both of the Matthewson brothers are accountants, and for this album they left their day jobs to concentrate on touring full time—certainly one idea of success. But the album also speaks of disillusionment, of “a void you just can’t fill,” as Matthewson sings on “Failing at Fun Since 1981,” which may be a function of having a desk job or simply of growing up in a fucked up world, no matter what you do to earn a living.
The last song on the album, “Dead Actors,” has a heavy melancholy and resignation to it, with Matthewson asking “What’s the last thing you’ve done that mattered?” before his searing guitar pulls longing and confusion together. Even though it sounds like he’s almost asking the question to himself, the rest of this album makes this final moment worth it, makes it matter.