Code Orange – Underneath

The runaway success of Code Orange’s previous album Forever (2017) left a lot of us here at Heavy Blog pretty baffled. While its combination of hardcore and industrial was certainly novel, it wasn’t necessarily “original”, and the band’s forays into moody alt-rock appeared under-developed to say the least. Nevertheless, the album received widespread acclaim elsewhere, was bolstered by an impressive marketing campaign, and even garnered a Grammy nomination for Best Metal Performance – propelling the until-then exclusively underground act into the mainstream consciousness. We (or, at least, I) continued to grapple with feeling out of step as with as Forever‘s legacy grew in anticipation of it’s follow-up. Underneath‘s arrival has only validated such reservations, however, as every single moment of it puts Forever – along with everything else that followed in its wake – to complete and utter shame.

Given the (surprising) mainstream success of Forever and the band’s oft-repeated commercial aspirations, it would have made sense for Code Orange to temper their aggression for its followup. Instead, the Pennsylvanians have gone in the complete opposite direction. Although Underneath contains more melodic (and mores-melodic) songs than Forever, it’s also a far heavier and more chaotic release as well, especially in its opening section. Opener “Swallowing the Rabbit Whole” is one of the angriest and most aggressive songs ever committed to record – by Code Orange or anyone else – and the album hardly lets up for the majority of its first half. “In Fear” sounds like an industrialised Dillinger Escape Plan, while “You and You Alone” sounds like a modern take on ’90s Sepultura (or maybe even a modernised Nailbomb) – combining Cavalera Conspiracy‘s experiments with hardcore and industrial on Blunt Force Trauma (2011) and Pandemonium (2014) (respectively) into one concise and extremely devastating package; with the later “Erasure Scan” combining both approaches to equally destructive effect, while also pulling liberally from early (self-titled/Iowa-era) Slipknot.

The band’s trademark electronic “glitching” – which is perhaps the only truly original element Code Orange can lay claim to (within rock circles anyway) – is also used far more excessively and expertly this time around. The electronic elements were mostly used as interruptions on on Forever – pushing back against everything else that as going on. On Underneath they are deployed far more expertly, being embedded into the compositions themselves and accentuating, rather than resisting, what the rest of the band are doing. The build-up to the breakdown in “Swallowing the Rabbit Whole” is a particularly poignant example, that wouldn’t be half as devastating (although still considerably so) without its unexpected interruptions. Likewise, it’s when the band really lean into the electronic elements, such as on “You and You Alone” and the deranged “Cold.Metal.Place”, that they sound truly apocalyptic. It makes the ham-fisted approach of Forever sound even more under-developed and leaves its legion of imitators sounding even more redundant than they already were. The band’s repeated rhetoric about being “thinners of the herd” and whatnot is incredibly off-putting and can get pretty tiresome. Yet, while arguably unjustified on Forever, Underneath proves Code Orange are miles ahead of the competition.

The melodic sections are also hugely improved. The stadium sized anthems of “Sulfur Surrounding” and “The Easy Way” make Forever‘s “Bleeding in the Blur” sound even more “battle of the bands” than it did originally, with guitarist Reba Meyers’ vocals sounding far fuller and more confident this time around (even if they’re still pretty shaky live). Yet, despite the success of “Sulfur Surrounding” and “The Easy Way” – the latter of which is probably the best Nine Inch Nails song since “The Hand That Feeds” (2005) – not to mention the grunged-out “Autumn and Carbine”, it’s the more melodic elements of Code Orange’s sound that still have room for the most improvement. Closer and lead-single “Underneath” and the unremarkable “Who I Am” are probably the two weakest song on the record. Both fall kind of flat and the title-track – for all its commanding, industrial bombasity – speaks to another area in need of development, which is the actual integration of the melodic sections with the heavier ones, beyond simple juxtaposition. As on Forever, the tracks on Underneath are either heavy or melodic – rarely both – and those, such as the title-track, that do combine both aspects still alternate between softer and harsher sections rather than achieving true integration.

Underneath also follows a similar pattern as Forever: opening with a slew of more straight-forward hardcore tracks, with most of the variation and experimentation being saved for the album’s second half, following a sudden detour into melodic alt-rock territory (“Bleeding in the Blur”/”Who I am”/”Sulfur Surrounding”) and finishing things out with something more clean and subdued in “dream2” and “Underneath”. Again, there’s similarities to be drawn here to The Dillinger Escape Plan, who followed a similar track progression on Ire Works (2007), Option Paralysis (2010) and One of Us is the Killer (2013), or even Metallica, who maintained a similar sequencing across Ride the Lightning (1985), Master of Puppets (1986), and …And Justice for All (1988).

Yet, while Underneath isn’t necessary a revolution, it nevertheless constitutes a refinement of Code Orange’s sound on every level – firmly justifying the hype surrounding the band in the build-up to its release and all the rest that is sure to follow. If Forever was an early prototype, then Underneath is more than ready for full-scale production. The heavy parts are heavier, the melodic parts more melodic and more fully developed, and that there’s still room for improvement is far more exciting than it detrimental, especially given the improvement between this and its already-lauded previous release. Forever may have been divisive, but Underneath is undeniable.

Underneath is out now through Roadrunner Records.

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