Album Review: Code Orange - 'Underneath'

9 March 2020 | 11:14 pm | Alex Sievers
Originally Appeared In

Code Orange; still thinners of the herd.

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'dream2,' the song that closed out 'Forever,' features a chilling lyric: "It's even deeper than before." After the creepy, ominous intro of opener '(deeperthanbefore)' - and after growling "thinners of the herd," their mantra that's described their music and branding since the song of the same from 'I Am King' - Code Orange frontman Jami Morgan bellows that exact same lyric from 'dream2.' Mere seconds later, he also screams "I've seen the other side, it's darker than it was." Now, if anything was to best summarize the intent and the sound of the abrasive introspection to 'Underneath,' and the glorious rabbit hole that this American act continues to descend down into, it's these two lyrics.

For everything about Code Orange on their new album is darker, deeper, heavier, even uglier than anything before it in theme and sound. This is the quintet tearing off their flesh for the world to see what resides underneath; them looking in the mirror and having something else stare back from behind the murky glass; the band no longer hiding from themselves nor doing things in meandering half-measures. Gaze too long into an industrial-hardcore abyss and the industrial-hardcore abyss also gazes into you.

'Underneath' is Code Orange's most comprehensive release, filled with so many tiny details and interesting motifs, like that recurring "let's take a good look at you" sample that rears up outside of the down-right mental 'Swallowing The Rabbit Whole.' At many points, 'Underneath' sounds like something has gone horribly wrong in the recording process, almost like the session files have been sabotaged in a multitude of ways. Of course, that isn't the case! The sudden silences or track-skips that cut into this metallic stomping beast, like on 'Swallowing The Rabbit Whole,' the mess of sounds in 'Cold Metal Place', or the pitch-shifting madness that doesn't discriminate between instruments or vocals - it's all Code Orange's own demented doing. As this record is a no-holds-barred assault on the senses; a flurried cacophony that reflects the noisy, chaotic world that plays out on our screens; getting to the core of who and what this band is.

[caption id="attachment_1108879" align="aligncenter" width="760"] Code Orange, 2020. [/caption]

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Code Orange liberally borrows from Nine Inch Nails, Alice In Chains, Slipknot, The Body, The Banner, Turmoil, Disembodied, and their peers in bands such as Harm's Way to make something that's wholly them. This record is everything they've attempted before, but without ever over-repeating themselves or having it once feel tired. In doing so, they've created a staggering collection of songs that could all be new favorites for their fans, regardless of individual taste. Do you prefer their heavier side? Well, then the racey 'In Fear' and the diabolical 'Erasure Scan' will rattle your bones with just how fuckin' hard they go. Or maybe you prefer the more melodic side that guitarist and co-vocalist Reba Meyers often guides? If so, lean and blood-chilling rock songs like 'A Sliver' or 'Who I Am' - one of the album's most telling, manipulative moments - will embrace you.

There's a killer duality at play on 'Underneath,' a fantastic musical balancing act of what this band does - metal, rock, electronics - but at a level never seen hitherto. Going into this record, I didn' expect to love it as much as I do now coming out the other side battered and bruised. You can tell so much has been poured in, with each new listen revealing something different about the arrangement layers. The real MVP here is guitarist, backing vocalist, and programmer, Eric "Shade" Balderose who places so much subtly into the LP. 'Underneath' wouldn't be the same without Eric.

As hinted at before, 'Underneath' features plenty more of this band's well-loved detours into 90's grunge and alternative rock, with 'Who I Am,' 'Autumn and Carbine,' and 'Sulfur Surrounding.' Yet unlike their past smash-hit of 'Bleeding in the Blur,' you probably won't be seeing these terrifyingly twisted takes on such a sound played at the next big NXT main-event or hear them on radio-rock stations right next to the latest bottom-feeding dregs from that of Bad Wolves, Alter Bridge or Five Finger Death Punch. These iterations of their emotional grunge-rock cuts are something... else. For one, the coolly soft singing from Reba on 'Who I Am' swirls around electronic drum machines and hair-raising guitar leads that haunt the background of this measured, mid-tempo rocker, making for a powerful stand-out on a record full of engaging, impressive compositions.

Elsewhere, Reba's snarling vocals grit their teeth over bending riffs, shimmering synths, and tough grooves in 'Autumn And Carbine,' transporting you 20 years back in time without ever feeling forced or cheap. Noisy pulsating percussion, glitchy vocals, and the weird laughing samples on the damn-well urgent 'A Sliver' conjure up a truly skin-crawling soundscape. The evocative, yearning guitar leads to the depressive, hopeless cycles behind the meaning of 'Sulfur Surrounding' give way to detuned licks and acoustic guitars, and one of the band's best choruses, seeing Reba shout "I know you want it" before the band lock into a simple but satisfying metal groove with Jami's vocal roaring over the top. Whether they take it slow or are running at a million busy miles an hour instrumentally, Code Orange are always primed for the brutal kill on 'Underneath.'

Jami offers a few unnerving spoken-word parts, like in the bridge of 'Swallowing...' or in the verses of 'Sulfur Surrounding,' but we even hear the man singing - yes, actually singing - over the harsh drum edits, wobbling synths and noisy instrumentals during 'The Easy Way.' A gnarly distorted rock song about truth and identity and one of the most synth-driven, electronic-heavy songs of the record. It's also a track that thematically and lyrically harkens back to their 2018 single, 'Only One Way,' what with the re-used lyrics in its chorus: "Don't want to know who you really are. Don't want to know who you're paying for." A kind of lyric recycling that doesn't feel phoned-in, as it's clear that it's all meant to be connected.

Case in point: the man on the album's cover is the same character branded with "I AM KING" on their sophomore LPs art, the same character burned alive in 'Forever,' now a shell of themselves as we see what they're made of under the glass. Which is a perfectly fitting motif for the kind of surgical industrial and bruising metalcore that Code Orange decimates with here.

I've already spoken about mainstream-leaning yet wondrously weird title song (whose chorus of self-understanding and duress has become one of my favourite refrains of 2020), as well as the city-leveling nature of 'Swallowing The Rabbit Whole' and its blood-curdling screams, snappy drum patterns, and off-putting piano chords. So let's instead focus on what else this experimental album harbors and spare you too many repeats.

First, the hurt goes on with 'In Fear,' another savage metallic hardcore take that absorbs glitchy industrial sounds and jumpy, drop B dissonant guitars, with frequent rests lurching this demonic industrial-hardcore track forward through ghostly sections lead by Reba and a wicked riff-breakdown combo that closes out this massacring heavy-hitter. Then, the right-hand panned scream of a woman that's cut up and distorted at the end of this track is like a Code Orange-branded jump-scare, only serving to pull one deeper into the grim world they've built up with their stellar fourth LP. Something the band achieves to a stunning effect throughout.

With a recurring spoken Japanese phrase dividing up the fast chugging, ride-cymbal-abusing burly hardcore bounces of the jagged 'You And You Alone,' bit-crushed synths and stop-start electro beats pull the sounds of what they were doing on 'Forever' to the next logical extreme, but in a more direct, fulfilling manner. Just like 'In Fear' and 'Swallowing The Rabbit Whole' before it, this monstrous 3:06 song is going to turn mosh-pits into a fucking bloodbath once the band starts touring this record.

[caption id="attachment_1108547" align="aligncenter" width="760"] Code Orange, 2019.[/caption]

'Erasure Scan' sounds like a nu-recreation of Disembodied and Turmoil, featuring absolutely neck-snapping grooves, heavily pitch-shifted vocals, stuttering edits that define this record's aesthetic, lethal harmonic licks, and playful tempo and rhythmic changes like their debut LP, 'Love Is Love // Return To Dust.' It sounds like a robbery gone awry, with some of the most jarring transitions found on the entire album, with gun-shots, hulking grooves, and cut-off measures. A similar thing that can be said about the harrowing gothic tones, whizzing synths and hardcore punk speed of the wicked late-game rager, 'Back Inside The Glass,' whose final breakdown is just INSANE. 'Erasure Scan' also highlights just how damn well these 14 songs move and morph into one another, as the meaty grooves and Slipknot-reminiscent 'Last Ones Left' suddenly take hold. And the way that that song later gets crushed and filtered into the opening melodic guitar lead of 'Autumn and Carbine' is some seamless stitchwork.

The icy cruel tones of 'Cold Metal Place' is a pinch-harmonic lovers wet-dream, with squealing discordance and freaky guitars meshing with distorted sounds effects and pummeling drums. Bereft of all light and melody, and with only darkness seen on all sides, Jami roars "it's pulling me under... but it's crushing you." The title of that particular song also makes for a perfect descriptor for the Stygian-black imagery and uncomfortable self-critical feelings that exist at the exposed, translucent heart of 'Underneath': a tide that drags you under into crushing depths that are begging to be explored and head-banged too. It's fitting that 'Underneath' will release on Friday, March 13th, because it's like a surreal horror-movie come to life. It's like a monster waiting under your bed at night. This is their Upside Down. This is what an A.I. trying to mimic human songwriting would sound like, and I love it.

When it comes to Code Orange, this is an extremely in-vogue and unoriginal opinion to express, yet it never ceases to be true: very few other bands could've made a record like 'Underneath.' No one else sounds quite like Code Orange in modern heavy music, and that's what makes them such a pivotal, exciting act in contemporary metal and hardcore currently. Their work this decade, and off the back of the incredible 'Underneath,' will no doubt spawn a slew of copy-cats that won't capture it as well as this Pittsburg group do. Their fourth LP is shockingly deliberate; it's decidedly them, in a number of unique ways. It hits me in a way that their other three records just haven't.

'Underneath' represents every aspect of Code Orange's sound and all-consuming personality, pushing that envelope harder into a nightmarish realm where brutally uncomfortable honesty about depression, isolation and chemical consumption, hellish glitches, grungy alt-rock, jerky loops, dark industrial noises, and confronting, groovy and dissonant metallic hardcore become a single brooding entity. 'I Am King' was the beginning, 'Forever' was a successful litmus test, and 'Underneath' is their creative vision in full realization. 'Underneath' is Code Orange's finest record yet; a nuanced, transformative piece that will become one of metal's biggest artistic statements in 2020. From the way it sneakily references and exceptionally builds off previous material, to how it pushes the boat out even further for the bleak world that Code Orange's music crafts, this is a phenomenal redesign of self.


Swallowing The Rabbit Whole

In Fear

You And You Alone

Who I Am

Cold Metal Place

Sulfur Surrounding

The Easy Way

Erasure Scan

Last Ones Left

Autumn and Carbine

Back Inside The Glass

A Sliver


'Underneath' is out Friday, March 13th: