If you ask me, Code Ornage’s Underneath (2020) is easily the best album of the 2020s so far. In fact, nothing else even really comes close. There have been plenty of good (and even some great) albums released over the last three years, but – in addition to its inherent quality – Underneath is also an album that still feels like it’s pushing the boundaries of what heavy music is truly capable of, which it achieves by bringing in a bunch of admittedly nostalgic yet otherwise untapped ‘90s industrial and alt-metal influences while also exploring (and expanding) new possibilities allowed by modern electronics and other advances in sonic extremity. There were many who were unsure if the band would even be capable of following-up the widely lauded Forever (2017), which Underneath not only entirely outclassed but also made obsolete in almost every way, rendering its own follow-up the tallest of tall orders. At this point, I honestly would have been happy with an album full of “Out for Blood”s (and still very much would be, if anyone’s offering…), but Code Orange have never been ones to simply do the expected. Indeed, “Out for Blood” itself was a complete 180 from the progressive complexity of Underneath, and The Above represents another unexpected swerve in Code Orange's career which, while not necessarily delivering their most successful album, nevertheless sees them at their most ambitious.
The Above is a much more varied, yet also far more regressive affair than Underneath. Rather than the rabid hardcore and cutting-edge electronics that defined that album, The Above leans further into the retro-90s aesthetic, often coming across as a blatant combination of prominent and influential acts like Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails, At the Drive In, Deftones, Helmet and The Dillinger Escape Plan, which isn’t necessarily a criticism. The prospect of such a combination will have many rightly salivating, but in cribbing from these influences so extensively The Above has lost a lot of the individual identity established across Code Orange’s previous two or three albums. That identity also had a lot to do with those album’s intensity and industrialisation, which is largely missing in action here. Lead singles “The Game” and “Grooming My Replacement” are a serviceable enough pair of hardcore ragers, but they also pale in comparison to similar (and far superior) tracks like “In Fear”, “You and You Alone” or “Erasure Scan” from Underneath, and probably would have been better served as a standalone single/EP release, in the tradition of “3 Knives” and “The Hunt” from 2018’s intermittent Hurt Will Go On EP, than being awkwardly plonked as they are in the latter half of The Above. The electronics also feel a lot more rudimentary, drawing closer comparisons to Trent Reznor’s work on the Quake soundtrack (1996) rather than his later musical masterpieces or Oscar-winning film scores, even if the drum loop on “Take Shape” is shamelessly lifted (or at least extremely derivative) of Nine Inch Nails’ 90’s megahit “Closer” (not to mention its extremely ill-fitting Billy Corgan guest spot, for which the song literally has to come to a complete halt to accommodate) and previously applicable comparisons to contemporary cutting-edge electronic artists such as Squarepusher or JPEGMAFIA are completely out of the question.
It can be hard to find your footing during the first half of The Above. Rather than putting its best foot forward, the way Underneath did with “Swallowing the Rabbit Whole” and “In Fear”, the The Above’s earlier sections come across as deliberately provocative, if not outright hostile. Opener “Never Far Apart” sees drummer-cum-frontman Jami Morgan bouncing his trademark snarl off again guitarist Reba Meyers’ crooning balladry while the rest of the band alternate between driving hardcore and twinkly piano sections. Both Morgan and Meyers’ vocals have improved drastically over their previous outings, but – as with much of what follows –the transitions are often jarring and the individual sections tend to outstay their welcome, and the whole thing culminates in both vocalists repeating “do it” in a way that always reminds me of Ben stiller in that terrible Starsky and Hutch movie from the early 2000s. The production, while effective and suitable to the new aesthetic, also seems neutered in comparison to previous releases, especially when it comes to the guitar tones. Moreover, while there are plenty of memorable melodies littered throughout The Above, they also often function more as “ear worms” than instantaneous “hooks”, and none of them ever lift off the same way that other acts that have more successfully established themselves within the contemporary metal mainstream – such as Ghost, Parkway Drive or even Architects – manage consistently. The songs themselves aren’t necessarily bad, and are indeed often impressive in isolation, but the transitions between them are almost always jarring, making it hard to build up momentum during its early moments.
Where The Above really starts to hit its stride is around its middle third. Fifth track, “Mirror” stands alongside “Surfer Surrounding” and “The Easy Way” as one of Code Orange’s best Meyers-led offerings to date. It also takes a completely different tack to those driving, guitar-oriented compositions, offering instead an actual, minimalist ballad that invokes Dummy-era Portishead instead of more obvious and expected 90s reference points, even if it is still a tad long and repetitive. Track six, “A Drone Opting Out of the Hive”, meanwhile, is the best of the album’s more extreme offerings, being built around a mechanical trudge and industrialised backdrop that sounds like a bunch of depth charges going off in the distance. It's a logical continuation of the blueprint hammered out on Underneath and Forever, and although the “tick, tick… boom” section in the middle is hella lame, it’s more than worth the killer riff that kicks in afterwards. Following a brief backwards-step in the form of the under-cooked and overly repetitive “I Fly”, the band again find success with “Splinter the Soul”, which brings a welcome nu-metal twist to proceedings. Following the enjoyable-if-unnecessary interruption of “Grooming My Replacement” and “The Game”, they also manage to reach new heights with “Slapshot”, which is by far the best song on the album, and the only time Code Orange really seem to hit upon a truly unique blend of alt-metal influences that sounds more their own than that of anyone else. “But a Dream” also provides The Above with an outstanding climax that sees Morgan and Meyers combining far more effectively than on its book-ending opener. …it’s just a shame that there’s still the rather similar and entirely redundant title-track to go after that, which just draws things out and could have easily been cut down and tacked on the end of “But a Dream”, or simply cut entirely. There’s also intervening track “Circle Through” which oddly blends the album’s only real foregrounding of electronics with awkward, almost-pop punk – complete with “woo”s and “woah”s – that exposes the remaining (if improved) weakness of both vocalists and really seems like a case of “coulda’, not shoulda’”.
I’ve been putting off writing this review in the hope/expectation that The Above would grow on me, and while I’m less perplexed by it now than when I first heard it, my overall assessment remains largely the same: As interesting and ambitious as it is, The Above doesn’t always work. At fourteen tracks and fifty-two-minutes long, it well outstays it welcome. Even if Underneath was only about five-minutes shorter, it made far more effective and consistent use of its time, and The Above would possibly have been better served by cutting both its opening and closing tracks, along with a lot (if not all) of its more traditionally hardcore offerings and focussing more exclusively on the alt-rock side of its sound, which is its defining feature after all. The electronics might also have been better utilised and/or accentuated, and the overused “nowhere to run” sample really needs to be retired at this point, or at least deployed more discerningly. Having said all of that, The Above is also a far more unique and interesting album than any of Code Orange’s direct peers (who all still seem to be chasing Forever) have put out recently, if ever. Recent records from bands like Harms Way, Jesus Piece and the upcoming END album are all arguably better (and often enjoyable) executions upon their individual premises than The Above, but neither are any of them as memorable, interesting or inventive. As with Forever, Code Orange have again found themselves in a situation where their ambition outweighs their ability. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t still be admired for reaching so far in the first place, and the times when they do succeed in grasping onto what their aiming for suggest the follow-up to The Above may well eclipse it in the same way as Underneath did everything that came before it, or since.