Review: Code Orange – Underneath

In February 2018 Code Orange released a single as part of a series put together by Adult Swim.

It came out towards the end of the album cycle that took the Pittsburgh bruisers to the Grammy Awards but it was seen through the prism of what it would have been in the hands of any other band.

Code Orange are not any other band. ‘Only One Way’ was an excellent addition to their live arsenal, an immediate indication that this throwaway single was anything but.

Little did we know the extent to which it prefigured the breathtaking album that would, in March 2020, follow and somehow improve upon their seminal, game-changing third album, Forever.

The band themselves see their debut (as Code Orange Kids) as apart from the Code Orange triptych now established by the release of Underneath.

In the words of the band’s chief mischief-maker, Jami Morgan, these albums are rebirth, revenge and reflection. The progression is clear and the artistic achievement is amazing.

Forever sparked a wave of hardcore albums influenced by its glitchy, alt-infused rage. Underneath makes that whole scene – Forever included – seem almost quaint.

Down we go.

The first song proper is the album’s second pre-release single, ‘Swallowing The Rabbit Whole’, which hints at what’s coming: an album packed with impossible intricacies, meticulously constructed on exaggerations of everything Forever did better than everyone else.

It’s a driving, ugly, intense opener that spasms and glitches and turns the sound of breaking glass into percussion with an assuredness that would make Anaal Nathrakh blush.

It also begins with a sample from ‘Only One Way’ because Code Orange are cool as fuck.

On the surface ‘You And You Alone’ swings around a baseball bat of 90s metal groove. Listen more closely, and even under that easily graspable riff there’s sheer insanity.

‘Who I Am’ is the first song on Underneath that puts the clean vocals of guitarist Reba Meyers at centre stage.

The guitar parts are infectious and the song more complex than the typical rock anthem, but vocally this is Meyers at her very best, a would-be 1990s icon transplanted into the electrofuckery of Code Orange.

In the week before the album’s release we were treated to its third single, ‘Sulfur Surrounding’, which boasts another wonderfully raw vocal performance from Meyers.

But that barely begins to tell the story. ‘Sulfur Surrounding’ is, in some ways, the culmination of everything this album has to offer. Part of the genius of Code Orange is their ability to effortlessly match a powerful clean vocal with riffing with heaviness and electronic terrorism.

Which brings us to ‘The Easy Way’, a Reznorian highlight of this blistering album despite the fact that we heard a version of the irresistible chorus two years ago on ‘Only One Way’.

But it’s ‘Last Ones Left’ and ‘Autumn And Carbine’ that might just be the secret weapons that transform Underneath into an epochal album.

The former appeals to the thrash metal and hardcore leanings of this particular reviewer without ever compromising on the overall vibe of the album.

The latter is utterly sensational. 25 years ago it would have been a chart-topper. It embarrasses any suggestion that bands of this type can’t write songs or hooks or choruses. Meyers, again, is stunning behind the mic.

Underneath ends where it all began, with its title track and first single, the earliest evidence that we were heading for something truly special.

‘Underneath’ is a cast-iron banger that’s got the lot. Both Meyers and Morgan are on top vocal form and every beat that’s intended to impact does so with interest. The chorus is as towering as the verses are cocky and snarling.

The album as a whole is an astonishing piece of work that sounds unlike anything else.

There’s a ton of alt-metal and industrial and hardcore laced into every note. There’s Nine Inch Nails and Hole and DRI. There are parts on this album that wouldn’t be out of place on classic Sega Mega Drive games.

Yet all of these inputs and influences – far too many to list or even identify – have been chewed up and spat out as one glorious, coherent poison.

This is no patchwork. There are no seams or stitches. It’s an incredible accomplishment, and one that’s going to take some beating. The terrifying level of detail applied to every step of the process has paid off.

Right now, three months into 2020, there’s one band I’d back to produce an album this decade that’s more exciting, more vital, than Underneath. That band is Code Orange; thinners of the herd.

The rest of you have nine years. Good luck.

Underneath is out now on Roadrunner Records.

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Chris Nee