Album review: Code Orange – The Above
Code Orange go even further down their rabbit hole to ensure they stand nowhere near anyone else on challenging and brilliant fifth album…
It’s dark down here. Clouded and cold. A shape-shifting realm of mechanics and mud, blending futuristic weaponry with malformed earthen entities from the deepest recesses of a twisted psyche. This is the Underneath, the world Code Orange created three years ago with an album that rewrote the rule of what it means to be heavy. A cacophonous, chaotic, crucial record from one of metal’s most forward-thinking and formidable bands, one that veered between digitised assault and hardcore brutality. Yet, such was the hellscape of the real world at the time, the record never truly got to live.
But this dank domain couldn’t simply be left to rot by its creators, and now they’re going back for more in the form of What Is Really Underneath?, the surprise reimagined record dropping this Friday.
It’s a project the band have been working on for a long time, and is perhaps something we should have seen coming. Speaking to frontman Jami Morgan, from his Pittsburgh home, precisely one week ahead of release, he explains how Code Orange are forever getting lost in the idea of Easter eggs and leaving breadcrumbs for fans throughout their livestreams, lyrics, website games and any other medium they can cram another nod or wink into. But now, he says, felt like the right time to bring that subtlety to the surface.
“It’s a chance to show more of what’s in the brain,” begins Jami, only slightly ominously. “That’s been an issue for me through our whole career – we’re at one stage publicly, but in my head I see so much more.”
For a band as progressive as Code Orange, it’s a curious move to revisit a record after so long, rather than moving on to the next thing. Doesn’t a remix album feel like the antithesis of their mission statement?
“Not at all,” he quickly responds. “I think it’s important to show people different corners of what it is that we do. We didn’t want to do a remix record in the sense of anyone else remixing our stuff – even though there’s a lot of amazing people out there. We wanted it to be a soundtrack to the record. Listening to this can kind of inform that world and the character ideas we were putting down in our art.”
Speaking to K! when Underneath was announced in January 2020, Jami explained that the record was “about duality” and “having to face yourself and having to face ourselves as a society in this super overcrowded, overexposed, totally all-consuming digital-based world that we live in”. Now revisiting it after a more than three-year absence, making music in a society somehow even more divided and dangerous than before, has the original meaning changed?
“That record is this tense, claustrophobic, techno hell – that was the core of what we wanted to represent,” he says. “It was a lot about self-reflection through a certain lens, almost through a borderline lens of self-hatred, that is something that has shifted in what we’re doing now, or is something my eyes have opened up to a little bit. There are different layers of reflection and that is something we’ll expand on further in the future.”
Not being drawn into specifics, Jami goes on to reveal that before making Underneath in 2019, he had “a 25-page manifesto of ideas” of what each song is about in a narrative sense, plotting like a maniacal Kevin Feige.
“A lot of music, I feel like there is no narrative foundation, no conceptual foundation, it’s kind of like a couple of loose ideas with a lot of gaps filled in. I can see that and I can smell that, but I want to have my story straight and my world singed up, whether people are aware of it or not.
“I try to lead this thing by doing what I love and am obsessive about,” Jami continues. “This was an itch that needed to be scratched and will hopefully make its way to people who would usually only put on track one of our record and be done. I find that an exciting prospect. This project could find some different ears who wouldn’t usually get past the barrier to entry on previous albums.”
What Is Really Underneath? is very much a different beast to its parent record. While the white-hot core remains the same, each track has been disassembled and rebuilt in a new image, one you’re more likely to see in The Matrix than New Cross Inn. As a huge Nine Inch Nails fan, the influence of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross looms large, with Jami and his co-conspirators leaning harder into their brooding industrial side, while elements of synthwave and techno add shimmering layers of menace.
“There are a couple of songs on here I think are just awesome songs,” he says. “So Below, Drowning In It and Club.Cold.Metal are hooky and could exist in different environments than we would normally be allowed to exist in. It’s immersive in the sense that we approach things song by song, but I’m always thinking about the album. It’s very intentional in things like the order, the way things connect, and I think people will be able to see that.
“At the same time, we don’t expect people’s full attention span for anything, but we do things purely based on what the void is for things that we like,” he continues. "We take elements of things that we like, and we try to put them together in a way that if we were outside of ourselves would think were really cool. We really think about every element and when we pump this thing up in the next week or so, people will see that. Being able to paint on that canvas and put a little bit more of that Underneath world out there, you know? That record is all over the place purposefully for the whole time, and this record builds a cityscape around it. I’m sure nobody will give a fuck but it’s fun for me!”
A chromatic, emotionless figure in a wasteland, tumbling through the netherworld, a post-apocalyptic rave, a demonic, scarred being on life support. These are the scenes in the 13-minute accompanying video to re-introduce Underneath to an unsuspecting public. Akin to the visuals used by prog-metal masters Tool, the 3D clip was animated by guitarist and electronic mastermind Shade and written by Jami, utilising sounds from every track on What Is Really Underneath? to tell a story of ruin and redemption.
“For me, the story of the album, it’s a Dante’s Inferno-esque thing, in which this mud man is essentially travelling to Hell, to this cold metal place, in hopes of meeting his maker and getting some sense of forgiveness or repentance. As he travels down he’s being taken through memories, nightmares and ideas, he’s being taken through his own mind, he’s being forced to watch things he’s done that aren’t good, he’s being shown amazing moments. Then in the end he does meet that maker and I’ll leave it open-ended as to what happens.”
Likening the narrative to that of the biblical tale of Jacob’s Ladder, creating a 3D rendering of a silver-fleshed (his skin appears to be missing) man to tie into the multi-layered arc of a remix album isn’t your standard fare for a metal band.
“We try to subvert certain ideas,” offers Jami. “That’s why I like the idea of doing a WWE theme song, and then doing a project like this, then doing Coachella, then doing a mainstream metal fest, then doing hardcore stuff. I don’t like there to be ‘pretentious stuff’ and ‘dumb stuff’, and we’ve been moved around both of those so many times. We’ve been told we’re a stupid WWE Monster Energy band, we’ve been told we’re too challenging, and we’ve been told we’re everything in between. My core principle is to have a world people can explore but also have stuff on the surface they can enjoy that they think looks badass.”
Years ago, a certain level of mystique used to surround artists, but in today’s tragic always-on mentality, such secrecy and excitement has been eroded in favour of perpetual engagement. Defying convention at every opportunity, however, Code Orange have shunned the trappings of social media and escaped the hamster wheel of #content. You won’t see what Jami had for breakfast on Instagram.
“It’s a dangerous line to walk because in an ideal world I’d like to do nothing,” he grins, while acknowledging that it’s not possible, adding, “In this world if you don’t exist then you disappear.
“It’s very hard, especially when you’re not at a certain level of popularity, which we are not,” Jami adds. “I think if you see us ascend to a higher level of popularity then you’ll get even less from us because we won’t need to do it! We can just focus on what’s important.”
By way of compromise, and to add yet another layer to the band’s multiverse of madness, they are rebooting their Mud TV skits, parodying MTV breaking news bulletins with the silvery mud man sat behind a desk with a knife and a gun, providing updates on what’s happening in Code Orange’s world. Two days before this cover story, the shiny reporter shared news of a mysterious phone number that fans should call. Upon doing so, you’re met with a period of silence, then an eerie message of someone thinking they’re being spied on before a series of loud bangs and beeps. It’s certainly more interesting than a TikTok dance routine.
“You can go into this 3D animated world, this mud world… it’s the core and there are different branches if you want, or you can just watch this shit and think it looks cool and that’s it, and I’m cool with that too,” Jami laughs.
“But at the same time, I do love interacting with people,” he says. “As you can see talking to me, I do love to talk, but I really only love to talk when I have something to say. You can’t be everywhere all the time, because people don’t give a fuck. And I understand why they don’t give a fuck, because I don’t either. We’ve been in our foxhole building something that’s going to come and it’s really special, really different, but yet the same in keeping things that we love about this.
"It’s there if you want it, if not, you can come see us onstage and we’ll destroy everything. That’s what we do. I don’t want to go into it, but there’s people in our band who are hurt right now. We’ll give our bodies, our heads and our minds until we can’t any more.”
It’s been a long time since Code Orange have visited the UK – nearly five years, in fact. Sure, the pandemic wiped out a good chunk of live activity, but the band also pulled out of last year’s Download Festival. Having never performed any track from Underneath on British soil, then, Jami describes their impending return as weird as it’s coming so far removed from their last release.
“I feel like we’ve been so supported by the UK, but people didn’t really understand what was going on [during the pandemic] for bands,” he says. “They don’t understand how much money was going to be lost by doing some of that stuff. We literally couldn’t afford to do that stuff – in a real-world sense. We can’t pay 20-grand extra to come to the UK. It’s not possible.”
Code Orange’s most recent UK show was at the hardcore Mecca of Outbreak Fest in June 2018, where they will make their long-awaited return this summer alongside Converge, Denzel Curry and Death Grips. A much more mixed bill than when they last appeared, and it’s safe to say that in the intervening years hardcore has exploded across the globe in the wake of Turnstile, with bands like Scowl, DRAIN, ZULU, High Vis, Speed and GEL making serious waves.
Although Jami is swift to point out that he was born and raised within hardcore culture, he admits he’s not an oracle of what’s good right now, but did recently see Regulate supporting vein.fm, which he describes as “one of the best bands I’ve ever seen”, and is going to see All Out War in a couple of days.
It’s surprising to hear that a man in one of the most cutting-edge heavy bands isn’t as connected on a grassroots level as he used to be, but what’s perhaps more stunning is hearing Jami’s humility when it comes to Code Orange’s own stature in the scene. Anyone who’s read an interview with the motormouth frontman will know his penchant for criticising other artists and firmly, consistently pinpointing his band as leaders of the pack and thinners of the herd. And while this might still be true for how they compare to the ‘mainstream’, his opinion on their role in hardcore has changed dramatically.
“One thing I do see when I do look at it is that we’re not needed. We’re not needed and we don’t fit into it at all at this point. That’s not to say that musically we won’t still do the bits that we love, or even that we won’t bring bands from that world – we definitely will – but in terms of us being a part of the culture at this moment, playing that stuff, it doesn’t want us to do it, it doesn’t need us to do it. I can see that very clearly.
“I’m still part of it but I don’t know if our band is part of it at this moment, in a direct sense. I’m still going to support hardcore ’til I die. When Bob from [Florida hardcore weekender] FYA Fest asked us to be on it last time, we played and it did not go well. It was over by then and that was years ago! The tide has changed.”
So where do Code Orange fit in?
“That is our culture, no question about it, but musically we never fit in there,” Jami answers, casting his mind back to the band’s early Deathwish days, and how they were perhaps too “art-minded” for some.
“There was a lot of, ‘We’re down with it but we don’t like it’, that was always the vibe. There was a brief moment about 10 years ago where it felt like everybody liked it, and that was over extremely fast. It is my culture and I love my culture, but we never fit in like a fucking glove, ever – just ask anybody who was actually there. It was always by the skin of our teeth. In time, maybe we’ll fit like a glove again, but listen to what we do, look at what we do, look at what we’re putting out there. We don’t fit in anywhere. There are elements of things we definitely fit in with, and I love that we have the cultural backbone that is hardcore that many artists don’t have. But do we fit in? I don’t care. Not in a confrontational sense, but we are what we are and that’s all we can be.”
The scene may have moved on, or perhaps Code Orange weren’t meant to be there in the first place. But what about the wider public? It’s been three years since the band’s last full-length, and now with more music being released than ever, and attention spans spiralling towards nanoseconds, there could be a very real possibility that bands like theirs get left behind.
“I promise you this one thing, with what we’re going to do next, I can’t tell you whether people are going to like or dislike it, but they’re gonna notice it,” Jami says, already looking past What Is Really Underneath?. “I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life. We’ve built things for years for a reason. We’re checking every box and looking in every corner and building a whole thing. We’re not coming out with some songs, we’re coming with a whole thing, and it will be seen. Will it be liked? I have no idea at this point what anyone likes. I know it’s fucking awesome and I couldn’t be prouder of anything I’ve done in my life.
“I have to follow my heart and believe in myself – and I do. I know when it’s time to move and when it’s time to not, and things happen the way they are. There hasn’t been a day in the past three years that I haven’t been working; I haven’t gone on vacation, I’ve barely lived a life – I live this, I breathe this. It cannot be a house of cards; it has to be built right. It’s going to be the most noticeable thing we’ve ever done.”
He pauses. Smiling.
“We’ll see if anyone else can step up to it.”
What Is Really Underneath is released on February 17. Code Orange play Outbreak Fest in June.
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