Code Orange – The Above
Released: September 29, 2023
Eric “Shade” Balderose | keyboards, programming, guitar
Reba Meyers | guitar, vocals
Jami Morgan | vocals
Joe Goldman | bass
Dominic Landolina | guitar
Max Portnoy | drums
Code Orange are a band that aren’t afraid to challenge expectations. As noted in my KJ Playlist (listen here) they have steadily evolved from hardcore kids to a brutal, industrial metal band that uses melody to go for the kill. 2020’s critically acclaimed Underneath dropped right as the pandemic hit and shut down touring. The record was perfectly suited to the quiet dystopia that gripped the world as death tolls climbed and life as we knew it was paused. Underneath plays out like a personal nightmare, a soundtrack for a horror movie depicting your worst fears and inner conflict. Needless to say the expectations for their new album, The Above, are sky high.
If you’ve heard the pre-release singles then you know Code Orange have again challenged themselves and audience expectations. It’s not a sequel to Underneath and isn’t looking to repeat that album’s aesthetic. Fear not though, there’s plenty of heavy moments across the album’s 14 tracks. Opener ‘Never Far Apart’ is a gritty, dense song that eases listeners into the new era by being anything but easy listening. Jami Morgan raps the verses over a bass heavy groove, with Reba Meyers handling the chorus vocals. It ends up with screeching guitars and a pummelling breakdown. ‘Theatre of Cruelty’ starts with a blistering bounce that turns into an airy trip-hop groove on the verse, before Meyers and Morgan scream at each other. Max Portnoy gets to run wild on the double kicks too. It sounds like Code Orange but with elements that expand what Code Orange sounds like.
The album largely strays from popular convention. It is cinematic in scope with songs that build to a highlight moment. Sometimes this involves crossing genres in new ways, at other times it is a bridge or pause that changes tempo or dynamics. ‘Take Shape’ really takes this to the highest level, with Morgan using clean vocals on the verses and a more aggressive approach for the chorus. It builds to an arena ready climax before Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan guests on the “spread your wings” bridge, adding his alternative nation credentials to a song that melds modern metalcore with mid-90s alt chaos. Whilst produced by Morgan and keyboardist “Shade”, 90s production legend Steve Albini (Nirvana, The Breeders, PJ Harvey) has engineered the record and undoubtedly helped them create cohesion with these different elements.
I’ve often found the songs that feature Reba more prominently some of the best stuff they have done. That doesn’t change on The Above, particularly with her stand out moment on latest single ‘Mirrors’. It’s a stark and fairly minimal ballad, in the style of melodic grunge with trip-hop beats. It’s unlike anything they have done before but adds tremendous depth to the album’s sonic accomplishments, it’s much more analogue and raw than the heavy layers of every other track. Upon its release as a single it felt a little out of place but it fits neatly into the album’s cinematic ambition. Like the Corgan guest verse, it changes the tone and adds some colour that was missing from Underneath and Forever.
Meyers’ vocals remain a critical element of the band’s sound, even with Morgan experimenting with cleans, as she adds her own bite to tunes like ‘The Mask of Sanity Slips’ and ‘I Fly’. ‘The Mask…’ is an incredibly catchy tune that will be great live with a driving riff coda, as the vocal duo combine with the repetitive “I am the living…” refrain. ‘I Fly’ is a great showcase for Portoy too, really using the full kit to bring the straight forward riffs to life.
Just when you think you’ve heard it all, they drop the brilliant ‘A Drone Opting Out of the Hive’ – hip hop moments crossed with a true crime podcast. Morgan narrates the verses before erupting on the chorus. There’s even a breakdown where the vocals just go “tik tik tik tik” and it’s enthralling. It’s backed later by the techno beats and industrial chords of ‘Splinter the Soul’, which would be a great addition to any Resident Evil soundtrack, as would the full-on EDM beats on ‘Snapshot’. Somehow all of this makes sense together, exploring different sonic corners of the Code Orange universe. It’s the kind of thing that bands like Smashing Pumpkins and Nine Inch Nails have made their whole career. The variation means the 14 tracks never feel too much or too long.
In terms of heaviness it is joined by the album’s first released tracks – the thrash-orientated head banger ‘The Game’ and the hardcore-influenced ‘Grooming My Replacement’. These songs are the closest they come to revisiting what worked on their past albums and ensure there’s no question they are still a damn heavy band, capable of industrial level savagery. They’re far from stripped back, still drenched in noise and distortion with Morgan sounding like a man possessed by some kind of evil entity. It maintains the uniquely Code Orange take on metal, with a production sound that is unlike the popular metalcore or deathcore bands populating festivals across the world.
At this point the last thing I expected was a fairly conventional rock song – but that’s what ‘Circle Through’ is. It’s verse/chorus/verse/solo/chorus/electronic breakdown but that’s as close to standard as we get. It’s tempered by the gnarly bass riff of ‘But a Dream…’, which brings back the trip-hop beats and some killer Wah Wah guitars. The hook needs to come with pyro because it just explodes out the speakers. Closing track ‘The Above’ changes tact again, its minimalist beats and keys highlighting a great vocal performance by Morgan. The choral accompaniment is a nice touch and the drums sound absolutely apocalyptic, a reminder just how awesome the production is.
Code Orange haven’t eclipsed Underneath but have opened up what is possible for themselves moving forward. Certainly I have found new things to notice with each listen. It’s quite possible fans will embrace The Above as their favourite album, such is its point of difference to their past work, in the same way there’s NIN fans who prefer The Fragile to The Downward Spiral, Slipknot fans who take The Subliminal Verses over IOWA and Nirvana fans who prefer In Utero. They aren’t quite on the Slipknot trajectory we might have expected but join bands such as Zeal & Ardor, Sleep Token, Bring Me the Horizon and BabyMetal as artists who are pushing metal forward as a genre, unencumbered by conventions and willing to mix genres in new and unexpected ways.
They haven’t sold out but have certainly used The Above to continue their rise as one of the most exciting bands in heavy music.
Code Orange – The Above Tracklisting
- Never Far Apart
- Theatre of Cruelty
- Take Shape (featuring Billy Corgan)
- The Mask of Sanity Slips
- A Drone Opting Out of the Hive
- I Fly
- Splinter the Soul
- The Game
- Grooming My Replacement
- Circle Through
- But A Dream…
- The Above