Written by: Ancient Hand
Aggression and forthrightness are the key components of Code Orange’s attitude. After the release of their incredibly well-received album Forever, the band maintained a certain level of aloofness and, well, fuck-you-ness. While some perceive this attitude as cocky and narcisistic, this attitude truly stems from the group’s hardcore/punk roots. The band’s DIY nature still exists to this day-- despite their Grammy nomination and signing to Roadrunner, the band still packages and ships their own merch.
This fierce devotion to their craft also translates into a ferocious protection over their artistic direction. After the worldwide success of Forever, it may have been anticipated that the band would lighten their sound and move forward in a “Bleeding in the Blur” style where Reba Meyers would sing the band into top-rock-chart stardom. However, the band’s first record in three years, Underneath, does anything but.
Melding ominous and spine-tingling samples with harsh noise, the intro track, “(Deeperthanbefore)” sets the stage as clearly as a one minute and fourteen second intro can: this is a Code Orange heavier and harsher than any you have heard before, and the album is going to force you to look it in the eye (or, as described on “Swallowing the Rabbit Whole,” into “your new god’s soul”), while also taking a good look inside. The album taunts you, however, making it clear that you won’t like what you have lurking underneath the skin.
After this brief intro, this record offers no respite. No short interludes, no calm outro closer, no room to breathe other than brief moments of pure unsettling silence used to chop up certain breakdowns and make them incredibly unsettling. As aforementioned, the track “Swallowing the Rabbit Whole” is next, and aside from being my favorite song title in recent memory, it packs a hell of a punch. Seeing vocalist Jami Morgan step up to the plate with more talent and variation than we have seen before, he makes it abundantly clear that the band is in control of what is happening over the next 13 songs. Despite the chaos you’ll be hearing, they know what they’re doing.
The next 2 tracks, “In Fear” and “You and You Alone,” are heavy and aggressive bangers with harsh and cutting lyrics to boot. My favorite moment on either of these songs (and probably the first half of the record in general) comes at the 2 minute and 9 second mark of “In Fear” where vocalist Morgan’s scream transitions to solely the left channel, before being sucked up into a dizzying wormhole of electronics that soon coalesce into a wall of harsh noise that shatters as the next breakdown enters. It is one of the finest transitions I have heard in a long time. “Who I Am” is next, which serves as one of the more melodic cuts on the record; however, the melody on this song is slightly off-kilter and unsettling to listen to. This feels very intentional as the song gains a stomping rhythm in the last leg and ends on the highest note possible.
The following tracks, “Cold.Metal.Place.” and “Sulfur Surrounding,” continue to show the band’s dynamics at play, with the former being another rager that discusses fires burning down “our 3D world.” “Sulfur Surrounding” is the first true melodic triumph of the album, with Reba belting while fraying her vocal cords: “I wanna see it through god’s eyes,/ But hate brews in me so easy.” This song is a wonderful midpoint on the record as the guitars become less pummeling, more intricate, and slightly delicate. It ends by gaining a headbang-inducing rhythm to the instrumentation and re-uses a sample we have heard before from this band--the quiet yet terrified uttering of “Nowhere to run” before the band leads into this record’s standout track, in this villager’s humble opinion.
“The Easy Way” is one of the best songs Code Orange have produced. It re-uses the incredibly catchy final chorus from their standalone single “Only One Way,” but makes it much more ominous, industrial, and demanding of your full attention. The ominous bridge filled solely with unsettling electronics feels like a small wiry bug has lodged itself inside your ear canal that starts to whisper to you in Jami’s voice before roaring into your ear drum. It soon explodes into the unforgettable chorus and takes another victory lap before finally conceding and passing you along to the next track. This song was stuck in my head for days after first hearing it, and it is still my favorite that this album has to offer.
The next few songs offer wonderful moments, but maintain the Code Orange formula. “Erasure Scan” is sure to go down as a live staple for Code Orange with its sheer heaviness and fast pace, both musically and vocally. “Last Ones Left” is another rhythmic breakdown-heavy cut with tasteful electronics sprinkled throughout at appropriate points. “Autumn and Carbine” is a memorable track featuring vocals from Reba. She does an incredible job on this song unloading auditory vehemence through her voice and lyrics: “Boss man’s posthumous hit factory/ He sleeps in silk sheets while you rest in peace/ Culture’s black eye like the girls you beat.” This song smells of gunsmoke and hidden corpses that the band has placed hits on.
The end of this album though… woah. “Back Inside the Glass” is a chaotic and crunchy banger with another favorite moment of mine. The desperate and angry cries of “Open the fucking door!” are sucked into an abyss as the song kicks back in around the 51 second mark. Also, the screeches on this song offer a totally new sound that is needed at this point in the record. “A Sliver” is a beautiful punky track that has easily one of the top 3 choruses on the record; Reba’s proclamation of “I’m a sliver, growing thinner/ Feeling smaller every day” turns the mirror to our image-obsessed society and shows it for what it is: disgusting. Code Orange isn’t afraid to be brutally honest: “Your voice, your choice, just a worm in the dirt/ Completely unheard.” The final song, which also serves as the title track, is probably stranger to nobody. “Underneath” was the lead single, and it is an incredibly cutthroat yet catchy note to end the record on. The last spit of anger rings through as the vocals end with the lines “You’ve got it all figured out,/ Until you’re drowning in it.” The record ends with a sudden cut-out of harsh noise that was used on “(Deeperthanbefore).”
Underneath is a beast of an album. It’s not afraid to call things out as they are and turn a filthy mirror onto our current society. It does so in a vile and grimy package, and while the sheer harshness of the album may lead some to have headaches, it is a sentiment that should at least be acknowledged by many fans of extreme music. The incorporation of harsh noise, the pushing of Jami to be the front vocalist as opposed to songs solely consisting of Reba’s more listener-friendly singing, and the message of the record all cut like glass. This was the band’s intent: to find out what’s underneath takes a bit of slicing, and just like any other album, there’s no knowing if you’ll like it ‘till you try it yourself.
Code Orange - Underneath was released March 13th from Roadrunner Records
Providing thoughtful reviews of music that is heavy, gloomy, and loud enough to wake us from slumber. Written by a groggy-eyed, highfalutin peasantry.