Code Orange – ‘Underneath’

By Fiachra Johnston

It ain’t easy being Orange. The Pittsburgh group have been making waves for a while now, undergoing a rebranding and coming out with the classic ‘I Am King’ LP, but it was with 2017’s ‘Forever’ – widely lauded as a hallmark of heavy music that refused to be contained to just one genre – that set them up for fame. After a period of silence with only the odd single to tide folks over, they returned with a tweaked sound to a somewhat critical reception but nevertheless, their newest record is very clearly a Code Orange release. Neither industrial, nor metal, nor hardcore, ‘Underneath’ resists categorisation. It’s a horror film of an album, constantly building tension, punishing those foolish enough to drop their guard listening to it but rewarding those who can overcome its anxiety-driven samples and howling vocals. Much like what made ‘Forever’ a landmark, Code Orange have stuck to their guns and delivered a sound like no other in the scene right now, and with it, perhaps the crown jewel of their discography.

One thing that was always going to raise concern was how much the album would rely on the new industrial direction Code Orange have recently found themselves drawn to. After the suitably terrifying introductory track of ‘(deeperthanbefore)’ and the second single ‘Swallowing The Rabbit Hole’, which has nice touches of Code Orange’s older work in ‘I Am King’, comes the first big test of the album with ‘In Fear’. There’s a definite upgrade to how these new elements play with the rest of their sound compared to early experiments (older tracks like ‘The Hunt’ were solid showings, but felt like the industrial side was built on top of their metal architecture, rather than woven into it), and the band set themselves up well with a demonstration of the rip-roaring results of this new fusion, featuring screaming samples that would make Aphex Twin cower. Right away, however, this track sets a rule for the rest of the LP: the industrial elements are to be a sidearm, not the primary weapon. This was the album’s big hurdle – convincing fans that the band could continue to deliver a genuine Code Orange sound without these electronically driven elements overshadowing their own natural talent – and they clear it wonderfully. 

This continues on later with ‘The Easy Way’, an auditory nod to 2018’s ‘Only One Way’ single, and the most industrial of the bunch. Even then, though, it’s kept in check by the masterful vocal displays by Eric Balderose. Eric’s screaming is second to none on this album, guttural and sinister in one moment in tracks like ‘Cold-Metal Place’, before letting loose to throat-destroying levels in ‘Erasure Scan’. This is backed up by some fantastic strings by Joe Goldmanon on bass and Dominic Landolina, who shares guitar duties with Reba Meyers. ‘Sulfur Surrounding’ is perhaps the best guitar showing on the record, with ‘A Perfect Circle’-style acoustic backing before breaking into stinging riffs that are utterly impossible to resist banging your head to.

Balderose, like in previous outings, splits vocal duties with Meyers, who handles the more melodic side of the LP with equal mastery. It’s incredibly enjoyable when the chaos of a heavy Balderose-lead track like ‘You And You Alone’, with its chugging drumline courtesy of drummer Jami Morgan, is cut down suddenly to be replaced by the more focused rage of Reba in ‘Who I Am’, an ethereal, slow (for Code Orange) jam that has this hard-to-pinpoint element of nostalgia to it in the verses, like a half remembered song from your teenage years. Or when ‘Autumn and Carbine’ – a track with hints of ‘Forever’ in its structure and a guitar line like an avalanche – suddenly explodes into ‘Back Into The Glass’, arguably the most hardcore-aligned track on the album that still retains those heavy metal elements that separate Code Orange from the pack. These songs are all solid showings on their own, but it’s how they flow and jump into each other that gives ‘Underneath’ such a human and conversational pace to it; some parts flow slowly and calmly (well, as calm as Code Orange can be), before others interrupt to switch gears, suddenly changing the rhythm up sharply but not unnaturally.

These vocals reach their apex when fused into each other, such as in the titular final track, which features both Balderose and Meyers in what can only be described as verbal sparring. If you were to continue the horror movie comparisons, it’s the final scene of the movie, the sole survivor facing off against the killer as the house burns around them. It’s not the best track of the album, but its positioning as the last one is perfect, and neatly ties into the theme of duality prevalent throughout ‘Underneath’, a record the band described in Kerrang! as being about “having to face ourselves as a society in this super overcrowded, overexposed, totally all-consuming digital-based world that we live in”.

Code Orange will be divisive, as they always are. If you believe they don’t belong in the hardcore scene, if you never gelled with their style in the first place, or if you simply crave the return of their other outing, Adventures, chances are this won’t do much to sway you to their side. ‘Underneath’ isn’t interested in compromise or appeasement, instead it’s a self-celebration, a tribute to the inarguably unique sound the band has developed over the last decade. As posturing and self-idolising as that sounds, at 14 tracks that absolutely fly by, it works a treat. The Pittsburgh punk outfit are happy to be as they are, and happy to put out an album that serves not to argue their case or convince you of the sonic superiority, but to simply be a heavy (and fun) as hell album that’s perfected what’s come before. In this regard, the Code Orange Kids aren’t alright, they’re thriving.

FIACHRA JOHNSTON

 

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