Code Orange - The Above (Cover Artwork)

Code Orange

The Above (2023)

Blue Grape Music

Boy, I would not have liked to be in Code Orange’s shoes in the run-up to this record’s release. The knives have been out in certain corners for them ever since they took whatever their genre is/was (industrial hardcore, I suppose?) and turned it into something altogether new and daring on 2017’s Forever. The ripples caused by that record’s impact continue to reverberate throughout the hardcore scene to this day, it’s fair to say. They then had the audacity to release Underneath, the follow-up which saw almost as universal critical acclaim. Sadly, this was a split-second before the whole world shut down due to Covid and against the odds, the band seemingly used it as a springboard to flesh out the aesthetic aspects of their work to an even greater degree. We were treated to some mind-blowing livestreams, and Code Orange have spent the time since releasing standalone singles, WWF themes, MTV-unplugged themed albums and a remix album. So they’ve been very busy. They’ve also more recently toured the Underneath material that they didn’t get the chance to immediately after its release. However, the wider public’s reaction to pretty much everything the band have done over the last few years has been…inconsistent to say the least. So there is a lot riding on this record. We could be talking about the great “what might have been” of our times or we could be looking at one of the all-time great three-album runs. Hence my not being envious of the band heading towards release date.

Jami Morgan has become a focal point for Code Orange in recent times. The one-time drummer has crept further forwards in the last 4-5 years and though a rare transition, few would argue this has been a bad thing. His growth in presence as a frontman and also as a cornerstone of the band’s aesthetic have been fascinating to witness. That said, Jami is clearly aware of the abilities of his bandmates as much as he is of his own. Jami co-produced the record, alongside guitarist Eric “Shade” Balderose. Vocalist/guitarist Reba Meyers also gets plenty of focus in the record and is used to superb effect. Often acting almost as a palette cleanser after the more bludgeoning, punishing passages, Reba trades most potently in melodic but propulsive tracks that span the emotional gamut from fragile and mournful to spiteful and defiant. And there is equal power in everything she turns her hand to. Reba is a star in her own right. But right now, she’s a part of Code Orange.

Making notes for this review, it became obvious that it was going to be very hard to not just run a full track-by-track because of how diverse the record is. But I don’t want to do that. I spoke to Jami earlier in the year about this record’s release and he was adamant that he wanted people to discover it for themselves, so I want to honour that as much as a reviewer can in all plausibility. So without being track-specific, a few observations that I hope will go some way to demonstrate how extraordinary this album’s ambition is in terms of scope and breadth:

The singles are out there already. ‘The Game’ and ‘Grooming My Replacement’ were released earlier this year, though it wasn’t clear at the time if they were going to be on the record or not. The fact that they, along with the Billy Corgan-featuring ‘Take Shape’ and ‘Mirror’ were already released, means that the 14-song tracklist makes a lot more sense than it might do otherwise. Because we’re talking about over 45 minutes of material here. And the material is frequently dense and challenging. Beyond the singles, which let’s be honest, are pretty fucking heavy for the most part, there are multiple instances of the hulking, idiosyncratic riffs that a lot of Code’s fans are desperate to hear. The electronic flourishes are as well-realised as ever and bring a surprising grace to moments that could otherwise be real sledgehammer business (to the uninitiated, at least). But don’t worry, the pure sledgehammer moments remain, in earnest, alongside the greater degree of nuance.

There are sepia-tinged, all-out grunge passages with singalong choruses, gritty power-chord guitars and popping snares. There are points where you can identify the lineage of tracks like “Bleeding In The Blur” or “Sulfur Surrounding” which is no bad thing, but more than once, when the band draw on all of their collective powers, they find an extra gear and the result is some of the most thrilling heavy music I’ve heard in a very long time. Maybe ever. It’s outsider art built for stadiums. It’s deeply intoxicating and beguiling. There are big ‘Yeeeeeah’ and ‘Woooooah’ moments, cathartic, soaring guitar solos, sparse passages where you’re left only with bubbling bass, programmed beats and the musings of Jami or Reba, and all of it is utterly captivating.

The build to some of the real standout moments are run through with an innate sense of fitfulness and anxiety as well. The themes the songs deal with are varied but are often focused on the concept of the self. Our identity, the way we interact with society and the effect that has on us as sentient beings. For better or worse. The existential angst which inevitably creeps in when such subjects are explored is only enhanced by the trip-hop influences. Twinned with the more unhinged savagery which the band always have at their disposal I’m put in mind of the dystopian sci-fi environs we’re all familiar with: Blade Runner, Total Recall, The Matrix, etc. Synthesised beauty hiding the true, brutal nature of what lies only inches beneath the surface. I'm not sure if this was intended, but it fits with all that Jami has said about the record.

The dynamics of this album are fucking wild. Creeping 80’s horror vibes. 90’s grunge bleakness. 00’s nu-metal anthems. 10’s industrial sleaze. 20’s unwillingness to concede to genre tropes; and crucially, a refusal to build a song around just a single idea. But even more impressively, where there were criticisms before (unfounded, I would argue, but still) of the approach to composition being somewhat of a digital patchwork and the heaviest hitting moments being the aural equivalent of jump scares; for as diverse and dizzying as this record is, it feels far more organic than Underneath. Steve Albini’s engineering work on the record couldn’t have hurt. Arguably it is less earthy than Forever, but it seems frankly absurd to try and compare those records side by side because the distance Code Orange have travelled and the ambition they have developed artistically in the intervening 6 years is immeasurable. The work they’re producing at this point is basically peerless. And I mean that in terms of both style and quality.