Code Orange – ‘The Above’

By Ash Bebbington

Code Orange are one of the world’s most brutally exciting metal bands, and that’s largely due to their relentless capacity to shock their audience. This is a band that likes to keep their listeners on their toes and never takes the easiest creative choice. When you press play on a new Code Orange release, it’s pointless to try and predict what you might hear. Just strap in and enjoy the ride.

Their 2017 breakthrough record ‘Forever’ thrilled listeners, a grotty hellscape of chaotic hardcore blended with industrial rock music, creating an album that sounded like the soundtrack to a waking nightmare.

The album spawned countless imitators, and with good reason. Code Orange weren’t the first heavy band to add dark electronics to their sound (after all, Refused did it in the 90s), but they were the first to make the electronics and traditional rock instruments meld together cohesively to make something that sounded so truly and comprehensively evil.

The follow-up record, 2020’s ‘Underneath’ went along more melodic lines without sacrificing any of their trademark brutality. ‘The Above’ feels like a continuation on that trajectory, infusing even more melody into their sound to devastatingly brilliant effect.

‘The Above’ has plenty of moments of crushing heaviness as you’d expect, but these are cut through with soaring choruses and moments of tender brilliance. The record feels like a love letter to some of the greatest rock music to be released in the 1990s and 2000s, with nods to industrial rock, grunge, and nu metal, without sacrificing any of the band’s signature sound.

That much is obvious from the album’s very first track. ‘Never Far Apart’ begins with the sound of scraping knives, in a way that is reminiscent of the opening of the seminal Nine Inch Nails record ‘The Downward Spiral’. The song proper opens with soft industrial sounds as vocalist Jami Morgan whispers menacingly over the top. It keeps threatening to explode into a wall of sound but doesn’t – switching into a piano-driven section with vocalist Reba Myers crooning over the top. When the song finally explodes into life it is crushing as digitally altered vocals spit “do it, do it, do it,” over and over again.

‘Take Shape’ is a pulsating industrial rock track that switches between subtle electronics and explosive guitars, with a towering chorus. On the basis of the songwriting alone, this could’ve easily been released in 1998, but Code Orange add their own inimitable style to it, peppering plenty of unnerving sound effects throughout. During the bridge for example there is percussion that sounds like a steel door being repeatedly slammed shut. Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins also makes an appearance, and his trademark nasal tones are a perfect fit for the 90s feel of the track.

Code Orange has always been incredible at writing crushingly brutal music, but their ability to write a more tender number has come on leaps and bounds on ‘The Above’. The best example of this is ‘Mirror’, which is almost certainly the best melodic song they’ve ever written.

By contrast, ‘A Drone Opting Out of the Hive’ is classic Code Orange, featuring chugging riffing, growled, barely intelligible vocals, and unsettling glitchy electronics. It also features an incredible mosh call, not a scream, but a whisper; “tick tick tick… boom”.

There are plenty of moments here that lean closer to straight-up rock than Code Orange’s music ever has before. ‘Splinter the Soul’ has one of the best hooks on an album that is full of them, while ‘Snapshot’ is a surprisingly upbeat rock song with an earworm of a chorus. Meanwhile, ‘Circle Through’ sounds like a 90s grunge rager. With the latter, it’s tempting to wonder if Billy Corgan’s grunge sensibilities rubbed off on them a bit when he came into the studio to record his vocals for ‘Take Shape’

‘The Game’ and ‘Grooming My Replacement’ will be catnip to longtime fans, as they’re the most similar to the band’s previous material – nasty, heavy, uncomfortable, and completely gripping. They were also the two lead singles, and you have to applaud a cheeky piece of misdirection; after hearing these two songs on their own, you’d have been forgiven for expecting the heaviest Code Orange record yet, but instead, the opposite is true. ‘Grooming My Replacement’ is a particular highlight; it sounds like ‘Iowa’ era Slipknot, while also sounding quintessentially Code Orange, which we mean in the very best way possible. Title track ‘The Above’ closes the record out in gloriously ominous fashion, a quiet, creepy track that explodes into life as Morgan yells “into the above.”

‘The Above’ is a masterstroke, comfortably one of the best records of 2023, and one that will excite old and new fans alike. It’s tempting to think that in 10 years’ time, we’ll look back on the current era in metal and see Code Orange as one of its defining bands. They are true innovators, blurring the lines between metal, hardcore, electronic, and industrial in a way that nobody else has before. This is the Pittsburgh sextet’s most accessible work yet, and if there’s any justice in the world, it will put them on the road to becoming one of the biggest rock acts on the planet.

ASH BEBBINGTON

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