After spending years festering in the dark, Code Orange are embracing the light.
The Pittsburgh metal band comprised of vocalist Jami Morgan, lead guitarist and singer Reba Meyers, guitarist Dominic Landolina, programmer/guitarist Eric “Shade” Balderose, bassist Joe Goldman and drummer Max Portnoy have taken their hardcore roots to infect rock music’s DNA with futurist instrumentation, bloody live shows and a desire to bring a new era of heavy music to the masses. Since forming in 2008 while members were still in high school, the group helped open the door for aggressive hardcore to succeed on a larger level. Their drive and determination have earned them two Grammy nominations for Best Metal Performance in 2017 and 2020, acclaim from publications including The New York Times, NPR, Revolver Magazine, The Guardian, The Independent, and appearances at music festivals like Coachella.
The COVID pandemic upended Code Orange’s coronation as metal’s new titans, as the world went into lockdown the week they unleashed their album Underneath. Not ones to sit and wait, the band immediately went to work on developing and executing live broadcasts that set the tone for what bands should do during the pandemic. After their final livestream Back Inside the Glass, Code Orange began writing what would become their new album The Above. Morgan conceptualized the record in a multitude of stages, filling stacks of composition notebooks with ideas on where to take the band next. It’s a process closer to worldbuilding in film than simply demoing an album, as he constructed physical mood boards and collages to visually define the record’s creative direction.
“It started at this point of thinking about what world this album would inhabit,” Morgan says on envisioning the album’s concept. “That kind of opened my mind to the different ways we could go musically. We took things in a brighter direction at times, and thematically it led to something way more personal.”
If the band’s previous Forever targeted upending hardcore and Underneath took aim at modern metal, The Above germinates rock music into a new organism. Produced by Morgan and Balderose and tracked by punk icon Steve Albini at the legendary Electrical Audio, The Above is a sonic odyssey that takes listeners on a ride out of machine hell and into a vibrant utopia. Code Orange find joy in crafting ultra-catchy hooks while never sacrificing their attention to detail in textural heaviness. Lead single “Take Shape” shows the group transform industrial machinations into soaring choruses, punctuated by a guest vocal appearance by Smashing Pumpkins mastermind Billy Corgan.
“Billy saw something in us, which we really appreciated,” Morgan says. “It was a very inspirational experience for us because he's such a legend and definitely a big influence on us. I don't feel like anyone's really utilized him in a cool feature like this in a long time. We were able to build something around him that portrays him for what he is which is a big-time legend and star. I wanted to make sure the song sounded like it was shining down upon him, and everything goes dark after. ”
All of these new ideas coalesce on “Circle Through,” which stands as a platonic ideal of what a great, catchy hard rock song should sound like. Morgan and Myers find their greatest harmony as vocalists, as both trade off vocals on its explosive chorus. “Mirror” is a showcase for Myers’ enormous range as a singer, as the song flirts with 808s and moments of trip-hop for an arresting experience. The track’s shimmering, naturalistic melodies come back to attack the listener, recontextualized as a truly vicious riff in the following song “A Drone Opting Out of the Hive.”
Those moments of earthy beauty often mask a horror lurking beneath. Morgan alludes to the lifecycle of parasites as inspiration for much of the record. “I was thinking a lot about light as a concept,” Morgan says. “I was reading a book about parasites and how they attach themselves to hosts and force them up from underground into the light, where they can be consumed by other creatures, and the lifecycle goes on.” It’s a metaphor that plays out through much of the album, the moments of serenity and lightness on “Theatre of Cruelty” are genuinely beautiful after the discordant opening of “Never Far Apart.” But it’s a beauty camouflaging a savage underbelly of darkness, as the band cuts through those moments with terror and heaviness.
The Above is a do-or-die record for the band, as a group they take their biggest swing yet, pushing their talents to their creative brink. The album morphs between genres and ideas with ease, the song “Snapshot” starts with dancey 80s synthpop production before sending listeners on an acid trip of a chorus. Elsewhere, “But a Dream…” is pure hardcore power-balladry, Reba Myers desperately singing the words “Free will is nothing but a dream” before the band slams into a metallic breakdown. “It's just what we feel needs to exist out there,” Morgan says. “We’re not hiding on this album. It really is just who we are and what we wanted to make. I don't think there's an album that this record sounds like, which was the goal.”
Code Orange is far past the point of caring about what scenes will accept them or what genre boxes they tick. The Above is a sonic testament to the force of nature they’ve become, expanding their web of sound further than anything they’ve done previously. Destruction isn’t the endpoint, but rather a necessary razing of preconceived notions in order to plant new ideas. For those that decide to come along for the ride, The Above is a 14-track portal into the exuberant thrills rock music still summons. The herd has been thinned, and now it’s time to start life anew.