REVIEW: CODE ORANGE – “Underneath”
Underneath is not your average metal record. Underneath is not your average hardcore record. Underneath is not your average metalcore record or your average electronic-infused heavy record. Trying to pigeonhole Underneath, and by extension, this iteration of Code Orange into a single genre would be doing them and prospective consumers an overly simplistic expectation and ultimately is a disservice.
Opening with the heavy glitch-laden intro sample (deeperthanbefore) is a very early-Slipknot thing to do, remember (sic)?!, and that will not be the last time comparisons between this outing by Code Orange and Iowa-era Slipknot is made immediately apparent. It immediately informs the audience that electronic samples and glitches are front and center on Underneath, and this is not your typical breakdown-and-tough guy-vocals hardcore record, even though there is plenty of the latter to be found strewn all over the beautiful mess that is Underneath. Dropping headfirst into Swallowing The Rabbit Whole listeners get a perfect snapshot of 2020’s Code Orange, as ferocious as Forever-era Code Orange, but now garnished with the aforementioned glitches, audio samples (glass shattering is an album-wide motif), breakdowns punctured by intelligent killswitch-stops (courtesy of guitarist Reba Myers new signature LTD RM guitar with an in-built killswitch), adding a surprising yet welcome twist to otherwise been-there-done-that breakdowns and riffs.
The front-load of Underneath is absolutely punishing, with feverishly opened In Fear, again featuring kill stops, which has an eerie effect on listeners’ inner balance of expectation and adds to an already claustrophobic soundscape. In Fear is also the first track to feature clean vocals courtesy of Reba, although her approach to clean vocals is more focused on adding a morose foreboding tone to the chaos occurring behind her, rather than a soaring melody; a stylistic choice that is repeated throughout Underneath. Special shoutout to the pummeling breakdown and ghastly shriek-glitch-transition between In Fear and Iowa B-side inspired You and You Alone, with its upbeat and high tempo chugs.
A key highlight of this record is that Code Orange succeeded in writing fourteen tracks where not a single second can be predicted. Every single track has at least one curveball, in terms of guitar-driven sections, electronic samples, or vocal switches. Writing a record of this magnitude maintaining such a high level of unpredictability without crumbling into a messy swirl is a feat which stumps even veteran bands, the fact that upstart kids could pull it off so well should be its own high praise. Tracks like Who I Am, The Easy Way, and Last Ones Left are so difficult to stereotype into a “heavy song” or a “ballad” or a “mosh track” or “an arena anthem” because one can very well see these tracks being any and all of those in equal measure.
Underneath has no shortage of “metal” with tracks like Cold Metal Place, Erasure Scan (bold to start a track with a gunshot sample, leading directly into a hectic harmonic-enriched riff), Autumn and Carbine, and Back Inside The Glass (which has my vote for the most ridiculously harsh yet enjoyable track on the entire record) being as innovative as they are destructive. However, this record is layered and requires repeated listens to fully appreciate all the nuance to the several facets pushing at you simultaneously, which is chaotically tiresome with a single listen. In contrast, Sulfur Surrounding and album closer and title track Underneath are the closest Code Orange will ever come to writing metal ballads. Sulfur Surrounding heavily hearkens to Vermillion (off Slipknot’s Vol 3. The Subliminal Verses) opting for Reba’s anger-fueled clean vocals and instrumentation that teeters between a slower ballad and a full-blown aggressive track. Underneath instead goes for a more straightforward slow-paced beat backed clean vocals and could be argued to be the “slowest” and “softest” track on the record, and when released as the records first single, threw audiences for a loop and caused misguided worry about the tone of the record and the band.
There is so much to unpack on this new Code Orange record, and a new Code Orange it is, with significant lineup changes. Staple to the gang are guitarist/vocalist Reba Myers, guitarist Domnic Landolina, and bassist Joe Goldman, but that’s where the familiar ends. Guitarist Eric “Shade” Balderose has mostly traded guitar duties for electronics, samples, custom percussion, and is almost entirely responsible for this new Nine Inch Nails – The Dillinger Escape Plan – Slipknot unholy amalgamation. The most immediately apparent change is the former drummer and vocalist Jami Morgan now moving to vocals fulltime ushering in a new drummer for live performances.
Underneath is a special record that takes large and bold steps and breaks several genre-trappings and stereotypical molds but has room for improvement. While the songwriting is downright inspired, there is some need for longer more “coherent” sections in each track which could form earworms and pull listeners back for repeated listens beyond merely wanting to peel back the layers on the onion soundscape. For example, the section on Back Inside The Glass which dials back the samples and glitches for a straightforward section of guitar chugs quickly rose to my favorite moments on the record. On a record this dense and nuanced, it is a good idea to sometimes give the listener an arrangement or two to embrace a familiar flow, thereby heightening the surprise of your next trick.
This listener’s chief complaint, however, is with the vocals. Jami’s vocals is just too heavily progressed with not a single second of reprieve. The static-y filter applied to his vocal tracks grate within the first few minutes of his arrangements, and the magic of adding a unique filter to vocals if the filter is on throughout the runtime. In contrast, Reba’s vocals came as a breath of fresh air, simply by virtue of not having that sickening filter, yet her vocals seemed off-pitch on more than one occasion. To tack this on as artist ineptitude, immaturity, or a stylistic choice is dealer’s choice and is left up to individual interpretation. Lastly, Underneath is guilty of having a very dense and often over-compressed mix, but that can be easily attributed to the thousand layers they tried to pack into a limited frequency band.
Ultimately, Underneathfollows the trend of “victorious thirds”, wherein an artist’s third record finally pushes past the underground and is a breakout success, and for good reason. It achieves if not surpasses the precarious expectation of building upon what made Code Orange a band to be reckoned with on previous records while introducing just enough innovative elements to truly push the envelope in a new and exciting direction. While still showing rough edges of youth, these guys (and girl) have mistakenly or consciously stumbled into something huge, and great things should be expected from their future!