ALBUM REVIEW: ‘Underneath’ by Code Orange

Underneath is the fourth full-length album from the Grammy-nominated, WWE-soundtracking Code Orange, a sentence that never seems to make any more sense no matter how many times it’s read. The uninitiated would be lead to believe that such achievements would mean Code Orange are not much more than another Godsmack-alike playing the radio-rock game, which is a statement that couldn’t be further from the truth if it tried. Rather, they’re a band who’ve not so much shed their original hardcore sound but repurposed it into an ever-evolving metal template, and when that keeps moving in a direction that’s always felt on the cutting edge of what this sound is capable of, it’s rightly earned Code Orange a reputation as one of the most vital and exciting heavy bands on the planet. Couple that with aforementioned accolades that would come as widely out of the wheelhouse of the majority of heavy bands at this creative level, and it’s clear that the state of perma-hype around Code Orange is starting to be reciprocated on a much wider scale, a rarity within this scene for sure but one that feels like something of a bride between tribes that only a band balanced this impressively on the boundary between heaviness and modernity could foster.

And naturally, given the pedigree that’s become the norm for Code Orange at this stage, Underneath is as convincing a leap forward as could probably be expected. There’s no real buildup or bait-and-switch leading into that judgement; Code Orange have been so consistently forward-thinking that pretending that anything like that is necessary simply wouldn’t be fair. Instead, the music on Underneath speaks for itself, with the oft-restrictive boundaries of rock and metal once again quaking under the might that Code Orange have to offer. Once again, they’re excelling in making a sound that’s dense and oppressively heavy without resting on their laurels even slightly, and when the results are as constantly raw and ominous as they are, Underneath fits the bill of what heavy music should be in 2020 perfectly.

What’s more impressive even on top of that, though, is that Underneath is perhaps the biggest step forward that Code Orange have taken to date when it comes to expanding and augmenting their sound. The base of destructive metalcore and hardcore remains firmly in place, but that’s broken apart by blackened industrial tones where the Nine Inch Nails influence is prominent, and production that embraces the discord of similarly loud and abrasive electronic music and hip-hop. It gives the whole thing a sense of dread that’s so impactful when Code Orange bend it to their own creative whims, especially when they take the form of much smaller additions to the whole piece that make a considerable impact on their own. There’s an uncanniness emanating from the off-kilter electronic tones slathered seemingly haphazardly on Swallowing The Rabbit Whole and In Fear, and the glitched-out immolation of Cold.Metal.Place amidst the clinical industrial noise genuinely feels like one of the most harrowing and unsettling pieces of noise put to record this year. The creative layering on Underneath really is second-to-none, especially when Code Orange find as much to do with it as they can; for all the notions of ‘innovation’ that bands make through simply feeding some electronics into their base sound, warping them like this and doubling down on the enclosed sense of atmosphere is so much impactful in almost every sense.

It’s not even like Code Orange stop there either, which they could easily do. They’ve got the foundation that’s more than capable of being extrapolated into a whole album, but the almost genrelessness that Underneath displays – combined with a proficiency that means near enough everything lands – keeps the momentum rolling pretty much indefinitely. There’s a good dose of progressive metal and metalcore that plays into tracks like You And You Alone and Last Ones Left that, when paired with Jami Morgan as a volatile, flesh-ripping mouthpiece, maintain their bite constantly, but it says a lot when Code Orange dip into more melodic waters and can still shine just as brightly. A big part of that is down to Reba Meyers whose vocals lend a grungier texture to tracks like Sulfur Suffering and A Sliver, but the nu-metal elements brought into The Easy Way feel just as potent and propulsive, such is the power that Code Orange have at moulding virtually any heavy sound at their disposal into the exact framework that they want.

It’s that sense of adaptability that provides a significant boost to the writing too, which could easily be deemed as the biggest criticism of Underneath in what could be thematically grouped into some fairly rote territory surrounding claustrophobia, entrapment and a lack of cognition onset by a digital reliance. Yes, it’s nothing new and in the wrong hands could be interpreted in a really myopic way, but Code Orange definitely have the intelligence to do something more than the bare minimum with it. For one, their own grinding, contorting sound lends plenty of weight to those themes in its own right, but leaning into the darkness and insidiousness feels like the right move to take overall, especially when a song like Who I Am, about Ricardo López and his stalking and attempted murder of singer Björk, is so rooted in the real-world darkness and fractured mental state that being so constantly and permanently enclosed can cause. It’s less powerful on tracks like In Fear and Back Inside The Glass which opt for the broader approach to similar themes, but even then, Code Orange have the voracity to ensure they aren’t all that detrimental on the whole.

Honestly, when the biggest fault that can be isolated about Underneath is that sometimes its lyrical arc isn’t quite as well developed at points (despite having far more to it than other bands attempting the same thing), there’s really nothing to get too worked up about. It’s still a fantastic album and has all the hallmarks of the paradigm-razing fare that’s been so regularly imprinted onto Code Orange, something that the impression of them still growing into makes all the more tantalising. Even right now though, this is about as exciting as heavy music comes, throwing conventions clean out the window and showing how much can be done with that within the context of this sound. On top of that, it’s rare to think of a band in this particular sphere that does it better, even if Code Orange are yet to hit their proper peak; that’s how exciting Underneath really is, and it’s the sort of excitement that only reveals more and more of itself with each listen.

8/10

For fans of: Nine Inch Nails, Jesus Piece, Lotus Eater
Words by Luke Nuttall

‘Underneath’ by Code Orange is out now on Roadrunner Records.

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