*** Go to our YouTube channel in the link below to see the video review of this record in episode #50 of the SBR Album of the Week.
Has any other heavy guitar band generated as much excitement as Code Orange in the last ten years? Not since the days of the Dillinger Escape Plan, have we put our focus on one group to carry the torch for the current generation into the new era. Though we still think of them as youthful upstarts, they released their debut album eleven years ago and received their first grammy nomination in 2018. The band that won the Breakthrough Artist mantle five years ago at the Kerrang! and Metal Hammer awards looked like they were on the verge of world domination when they issued their 2020 album, Underneath, via Roadrunner Records.
But if any artist lost momentum during the Covid lockdowns, it was Code Orange. They had gargantuan tour plans cancelled. The grind of promoting what should have been their defining album turned into a salvage operation. Critical acclaim helped, but it came and went like a respectful philanthropic fundraising event that achieved its purpose and moved on to the next cause. Despite the support of YouTube critics like Anthony Fantano and Finn McKenty and a remix album earlier this year, one could not avoid the impression that the band might be encountering their first identity crisis. News that they left Roadrunner Records only added to the worries.
Let’s say this upfront – Code Orange are stronger than ever. New label, Blue Grape Music, is an ambitious venture created by industry veterans, and the band’s management team have secured them festival slots befitting of their growing stature. The songwriting duo of Reba Meyers (vocals/guitar) and Jami Morgan (vocals) continues to blossom, yet they never lose sight of their purpose to melt your face with a soldering iron of brutal dynamics and chaotic noise assaults. Imagine if you asked AI to create an amalgamation of the best moments of 1990s rock and metal into one coherent piece by choosing Nine Inch Nails, Korn, Machine Head, Garbage, L7 and Earth Crisis as the inputs. It’s likely that the output would sound something like The Above.
Opener, ‘Never Far Apart’, starts with Nitzer Ebb synths and a sinister spoken-word discourse as if Trent Reznor grabbed the mic, but the aggressive chorus you expect does not arrive. Instead, Reba Meyers searches for her inner Karen Carpenter with an uplift of melody and a forced smile. The album title is a metaphor for the superficial happiness and serenity that we see all around us in our developed societies. Code Orange’s way of dealing with this unsettling dichotomy is by contrasting the sparkling blue with the grotesque red and black realities of life. When the violence erupts, it crushes everything around it in a gratifying scatter-gun release of hardcore-tinged industrial metal. They do the same on ‘Theatre of Cruelty’, where the experimentation with the classic Deftones mix of minimalist keyboard ambience and shoegaze melodies collide with monstrous spasms of metallic guitar riffing. How they maintain a hardcore musical identity among this glitchy turbulence is one of the supreme triumphs of this record.
Like their last LP, The Above seethes with anger and titillates with voyeuristic pleasure. The Nine Inch Nails groove of ‘Take Shape’ could be from The Fragile, yet they enlist a cameo from Billy Corgan to prepare the way for the psychopathic rage at the finale. Sometimes, they don’t even bother to hide their influences. The middle-eight riff in ‘The Mask of Sanity Slips’ is a direct lift from ‘Clown’ by Korn, while the snarling Reba Meyers-led chorus would not be out of place on Hole’s Live Through This.
Of course, Code Orange are not content to be just another heavy band. Their aims stretch way beyond the need to give metalcore a kick up the backside. Previous dabbles in the grunge and alternative rock genres revealed a band that could match the intensity of Nirvana and the poignancy of The Pixies. ‘Mirror’ is a clear attempt to follow in the footsteps of older fan favourites like ‘Bleeding in the Blur’ and ‘Who I Am’. Here, Reba Meyers delivers her finest vocal performance to date, full of melancholy reflections on the loneliness of life wrapped in a gorgeous contralto pitch of aching melodic resonance. But nothing can prepare you for the absurd violence of ‘A Drone Opting Out of the Hive’, which follows like the aftermath of a trip wire infringement. Hardcore bands had no time for nu metal back in the day, but Code Orange show what you can do with the most basic of chromatic riffs when you put them through a mangler. How is it possible to write something so menacing and yet empowering?
The fact that this album extends to fourteen songs – none of which you’d call interludes or transitional pieces – says a lot about the confidence in the Code Orange camp. And why not? Nothing here falls into mediocrity. Meyers and Morgan understand what made the classic albums of the 1990s so enduring. For every defiant barricade against the mainstream, must come a self-conscious decision to engage with the world around you. The grungy back-to-back anthems of ‘I Fly’ and ‘Splinter the Soul’ could not be further removed from the drivel of modern rock in their intensity and dark foreboding. You’ll feel like an omnipotent and vengeful God watching humanity destroy itself in the latter, yet the chorus could be from a Garbage album.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is Jami Morgan’s decision to vacate the microphone for large parts of this record. Reba follows his charismatic death fantasy of ‘Grooming My Replacement’ with two successive rock numbers (see ‘Snapshot’ and ‘Circle Through’) that could bring in a wider audience if given the right exposure on modern media platforms. It’s a strategy from the heart rather than the commercial sensibilities of the head, and how can something that wants to mould modern rock into a darker and more violent artform diminish the listening experience? Fans of the recent albums from Greg Puciato will understand the brilliance of this approach.
Code Orange exceeded their potential on their 2020 record, and they do the same here. Why be content as the king of a nation when you can be the emperor of the world? They have some way to go, but the top is within view. Does heavy guitar music get more exciting than this?
Release Date: 29/09/2023
Record Label: Blue Grape Music
Standout tracks: Mirror; A Drone Opting out of the Hive; Grooming My Replacement
Suggested Further Listening: Nine Inch Nails – The Downward Spiral (1994), Greg Puciato – Child Soldier: Creator of God (2020), Hole – Live Through This (1994)