By Natalie Zina Walschots"It builds character, right?" There is a grin in drummer Shane Matthewson's voice as he teases his brother Jesse, guitarist and vocalist for KEN Mode, the metallic hardcore and noise rock band the pair founded together.
Jesse, who's been complaining about the arduous, if glorious, recording process for their latest album, Entrench, groans audibly. "I've been building character for 13-and-a-half years," he laments. "We have plenty of character."
Jesse and Shane Matthewson, alongside bassist Andrew LaCour (who is also guitarist and principle songwriter for Florida hardcore project Khann) have more than just character. The Winnipeg-based noise-mongers have done something that no other band in Canada have yet accomplished: they won a Juno Award for Metal/Hard Album of the Year. The Junos typically represent the highest form of mainstream acclaim that a Canadian musician can achieve, and a win is usually considered a feather in the cap for artists.
For a heavy metal band, however, winning a Juno has meant something considerably different. Their award was not broadcast on television, and their story was reported in mainstream music media more as a curiosity than a significant piece of news. They were up against an incredibly diverse set of competing bands: peers and tour-mates in Ottawa's grindcore act Fuck The Facts; neo-trash revivalists Cauldron; the peerless voice and conceptual mind of Devin Townsend; and legendary Scarborough-based classic metal band Anvil (whose obscurity and rebirth was the subject of the documentary Anvil: The Story of Anvil). In winning, they beat out several competitors with higher public profiles and more straightforward aesthetics, a victory for difficult Canadian music itself.
While the day to day lives of KEN Mode remain unchanged, what the win has done is present opportunities that have enabled the band to take significant steps toward the next level, and, more importantly, make the best record of their career. Entrenchis positioned to be the record that brings KEN Mode a level of success never before possible.
There is an undercurrent of anxiety in all their voices when they talk about their hopes for Entrench, though it's hidden behind good humour and measured statements of cautious optimism. Shane says that their approach was to "try everything. These opportunities come, and we follow them where they go." They have signed to Season on Mist in Europe and the U.S., and New Damage, the new aggressive imprint of Dine Alone Records, in Canada. The record was recorded and mixed during a positively luxurious four weeks in the studio with legendary produced Matt Bayles. KEN Mode might not be able to predict where lightning will strike, but they have build a hell of a lightning rod around Entrench.
All three members have poured their personal resources into the band, especially Jesse and Shane, both of whom quit their jobs two years ago. Jesse is deliberately vague about his hopes for the record, stating that, "we're operating on the same principle we always are which is: we'll see how it goes." Shane is slightly more blunt, noting that is Entrench does not lead them to a sustainable model for KEN Mode, "then it's not a 'we're never going to do music again' thing, but you can't just keep dumping all your resources into one place. You have to put some eggs into some other baskets."
Whether it was the pressure to succeed or merely a band at their peak, Entrench is KEN Mode's masterpiece. While still abrasive and challenging, the song structures have an internal harmony to them, an undeniable solidity and urgency that surpasses anything they've written before. While the lyrics are still marked by anguish and delivered with blast-furnace intensity, they are also much more sophisticated, even reflective. Riff structures draw upon a wider range of influences, from the filthy punk of "Secret Vasectomy" to the seething post-rock of "Monomyth." It is a more weighty and witheringly intelligent album, yet also possesses more hooks and choruses than ever.
Working with a big name metal producer in Matt Bayles, the former keyboardist in Minus The Bear who's recorded seminal aggressive records like Mastodon's Blood Mountain, Oceanic by Isis and Botch's We Are the Romans, helped KEN Mode achieve Entrench's heights. But it wasn't just an experienced producer — after all, they recorded 2011's Venerable with Converge's Kurt Ballou, who possesses one of the finest pedigrees in aggressive music. The difference this round was simply time.