Code Orange are on a mission to change heavy music for good

In astonishing new album Underneath, Code Orange have set a new benchmark for their innovation, audacity and uncompromised ambition. In doing so, they might have not only made the album of the year, but one that will shape the course of heavy music. Journey down their nightmarish rabbit hole…

Code Orange are on a mission to change heavy music for good
Sam Law

What do you see when you look in the mirror?

In the age of social media, ‘personality’ is an increasingly layered construct. At its outermost extremes we have the cultivated exterior image, preened and projected webward in a series of snaps and selfies for all to see. Beneath that, there’s the unkempt everyday reality: a coffee-fuelled, grease-stained version of ourselves familiar only to close friends and family. Deeper still, at our guts, those prides and passions, fears and anxieties, lusts and darkest secrets; the odd, often ugly, sometimes downright obscene self-truths that define who we really are.

If holding onto that beating heart is hard for most of us, it’s a ferocious struggle for firebrands like Code Orange. Following the release of the Pittsburgh quintet's new LP Underneath, it’s a battle at the forefront of their minds.

“Being in a band,” reckons Jami Morgan, “there’s just so much noise around you: opinions, critique, love, hate and everything in between. Underneath is about the way that we’re forced to face ourselves – or, rather, not forced to face ourselves – in this era where everyone is judged on their public performance, whether as a band or through social media, and the ugliness that builds within that.”

Beneath a steely grey Pittsburgh sky, the frontman has changed perceptibly in the two-and-a-half years since his band’s debut Kerrang! magazine cover. A once-wiry frame has grown broad and muscular. Months removed from the violent, adrenalised chaos of tour, the energy, bravado and unquenchable self-belief is still there, but it has been honed by experience and understanding. A construction crew pounding away streetside tease at the anger and impatience that have defined his career thus far (“They’ve been out there for three days straight! It’s annoying as fuck!”), but an ever-tighter artistic focus wins out. Most pressingly, Jami’s understanding has sharpened of the undeniable duality in the music industry machine – between the analogue and the digital, the public and the personal, collective-consciousness conservativism and the individual desire to progress.

“We’re simultaneously the most protected and the most exposed we’ve ever been,” he nods. “Information is so readily available, but we can also get away with presenting ourselves in a way that isn’t who we really are. I wanted to write about this digital age from a different perspective: not to be frightened of the future, or to think that the machines are taking over and the government are listening to us, but to consider the effects it’s having on us and our art. It’s about the things that we’ve done, the experiences we’ve had, the things we see in society, the joy and the tragedy on our screens every day.”

Code Orange has always drawn a coherent singularity from its internal collective, and his bandmates – multi-instrumentalist co-conspirator Eric ‘Shade’ Balderose, quietly perceptive guitarist and vocalist Reba Meyers, her intense six-string accomplice Dominic Landolina and hulking bassist Joe Goldman – fervently nod along.

“There are so many different people, companies and apps just pulling in different directions,” Shade continues. “It gets to the point where it’s just a fucking buzzing cacophony of other people’s opinions, so loud you can’t hear yourself. You become what people around you are thinking, like a hive-mentality. Whether you know it or not, society and the internet are shaping who you are.

“I don’t think people realise just how psychologically detrimental it is to see the same shit over and over again. The same bands, the same people on your Instagram and Facebook, day after day. People don’t realise how much of an impact that has on your perception of the world. If you just step back, you can do your own thing. Be weird. Be cool. It doesn’t matter what others think if it means something to you.”

READ THIS: Code Orange's track-by-track guide to Underneath

Before even starting Underneath, the past few years have been hectic for the band following their emergence as one of the hottest names in heavy music. Between boundary-pushing victories (dropping Adult Swim single Only One Way, releasing 2018’s three-track The Hurt Will Go On EP, remixing alt-J’s Hit Me Like That Snare and Adeline) and needling disappointments (being nominated for, and subsequently losing out on, a Best Metal Performance GRAMMY) there’s a sense that every swerve has shaped and elevated their vision. All the while, critics and commentators, fans and trolls have been there, gossiping, detracting, wearing away.

“We’ve had those experiences together,” says Reba. “Not just of the music industry, but of the world in general. It’s overwhelming. We’re trying to process that in a cathartic way: using that digital influence to make art rather than using them to drive yourself crazy.”

“It’s not an easy lifestyle for bands like us,” Jami adds. “We don’t reap a ton of rewards. We get what people who work at [fast-food chain] Wendy’s get.” Fuel, then, comes from that internal desire. “We have to keep hold of that fire. There’s a lot of noise out there. How can ours matter?”

“It’s why we don’t reveal much about ourselves or give interviews about our personal lives,” Shade says. “We don’t want people to run away with ideas about us. Don’t put us in a box. Don’t tell us what we are. The second that happens, we’ll flip the script on you. We want to shape perceptions. We want Code Orange to stand together as a unit – and to stand for something.

“If you don’t get where we’re coming from, then fuck you; you’re sheep.”

It’s an irony not lost on the band that the long gestation of Underneath began in Shade’s attic apartment, gathered around a laptop. Their mission? Harness technology’s positive power to change heavy music for good.

“We didn’t want to make a metal record,” Shade reflects. “We didn’t want to make an electronic record. We didn’t want to make some weird rock record. We wanted to make a Code Orange record: something new, something you couldn’t put your finger on, something as insane as possible. We didn’t stop to think how we were going to do that, or what people were going to think. We just wanted to make the record that we wanted to make: our place to stand.”

That mission statement required a sound as dense and layered as the psychological concept. Jami rebuffs others’ descriptions of this new ‘industrial’ sound as “oversimplified”, insisting instead that rather than smashing genres together, the record was assembled like a “puzzle… environmental, immersive, electronic on a different level”. Demos were less “loose ideas” than detailed “blueprints” into which thousands of man hours were poured. There was no laissez-faire or staying off each other’s backs. This quintet thrive on spurring each other on.

“The process was gruelling,” Shade sighs. “We kept everything so tight-knit, hush-hush between ourselves. It’s hard to work for so long without other people’s feedback, but it helped to not prohibit our personal instincts as an artists.”

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These “Ableton Projects” (named after the DIY software used) were “completely insane”. Some of them featured over 200 tracks at once. Songs were an amalgamation of influences as varied as Nine Inch Nails and Depeche Mode, Hatebreed and Pantera, yet sounded like nothing before.

Reba, whose greater and more dynamic contributions on Underneath shine through, smiles. “That combination of the core realness and the futuristic psychosis – that melody and dissonance – is something we did by accident when we were kids. Nowadays, we’re more reflective. It’s about encouraging one another, pushing one another to reach for sounds that exist only in our imaginations. Some of us have the patience to do that. Some of us have the openness to create those unimaginable ideas. When those elements come together, you get amazing stuff.”

To turn these blueprints into jagged towers of sound, the band headed south down I-71 for Nashville, Tennessee, and the base of “rock guy” Nick Raskulinecz. Not, however, because of the producer’s sterling work drawing out the deep darkness on recent Korn, Alice In Chains and Mastodon releases, but simply because he would help ground the material in the metal world while avoiding unnecessary meddling with the band’s overall vision. Legendary Nine Inch Nails programmer Chris Vrenna was tapped as well to help convert Shade’s compositions through a slicker Pro Tools setup.

“He’s so similar to me, it’s crazy,” Shade flashes, noting the time-warped resemblance between NIN’s top-end ’90s software and the “bottom-of-the-barrel” methods he’d been using. “When he’d tell me I’d figured stuff out similarly to how he had, it felt very rewarding.”

Eight weeks with Raskulinecz ended in early June last year. “At the end of the whole process,” Shade says, “I was the one who walked out of there with two master drives of this crazy music. I don’t think it’s a normal thing for a band member to be the one to do that.” He enjoys our comparisons with a Matrix character staring at indecipherable screens of code, but admits it’s uncomfortably close to reality.

“It blew my mind how much work I really had to do on the record. It was daunting, but it needed to be done. There were points when I’ve been at my computer so long my back was destroyed, with my head in my hands thinking, ‘Fuck, I want this to be over.’ But at the end of the day, you’ve got to fight for what your vision is, because no-one else is going to make it happen but you.”

Perfectionism would not let them go. Live dates, including a scheduled visit to Bloodstock, were cancelled. “Hard decisions had to be made,” Jami sighs, ruefully. “That was truly necessary. There was no way we could have played and hit our deadlines.” Mixing sessions were undertaken with long-term collaborator Will Yip in Studio 4 Recording back in Pennsylvania. At one point, the project even took them west to Los Angeles in order to rework the title-track with Kanye West’s primary engineer Andrew Dawson, before the completed work was finally turned in to their label, the legendary Roadrunner Records, in early September.

“It’s the hardest thing that I’ve done in my life,” Shade reflects, understanding that pain is temporary but greatness is forever, “but it’s been worth it. It had to happen, no matter what it did to me emotionally or physically. If you showed me this record two years ago, I would have had no idea how we did it. But we’ve come away with this master-worked quilt of our creativity – the whole band’s vibe – and something that is unquestionably Code Orange.”

‘Masterpiece’ is not a term to be deployed casually, but there can be no better description for Underneath’s marriage of aggression and invention. Dense yet dynamic, disgustingly heavy yet hooky as hell, it will change the game. A riposte to today’s disposable playlist culture, its 14 songs unfold as a juddering nightmarish mixtape, each loaded with characters and themes. Like an inverted, supercharged version of NIN’s The Downward Spiral, however, there is a discernible arc – from losing oneself down the digital rabbit hole, to reconnecting to the spirit within.

Jami sees it as a conclusion to Code Orange’s introductory trilogy, the journey’s-end for the long-suffering figure from their albums’ artwork, who’s been lacerated, incinerated and now excoriated altogether. Started with 2014’s I Am King (a violent, scarified rebirth as they left their original ‘Code Orange Kids’ moniker behind) and continued by 2017’s Forever (a powerful show of growing bravado and a fiery reckoning on bitter vengeance), Underneath sees the “becoming”: the full realisation of the monster within. “It’s our time, in terms of where we’re at, where we’ve been and where we’re gonna’ go. It’s do or die in some ways.”

In many senses, though, this is just the beginning.

Addressing the layered psyche, Underneath is less a record to be dropped than a concept to be unwrapped one twist at a time. In 2017, Jami described his band’s hardcore shows as a haunted house where you’d signed a waiver permitting physical contact. As the shows grow grander they need to find a way of maintaining that malevolence from a distance. This feels like the answer. “If our earlier records were slasher movies,” he nods, “then this is very much a psychological horror. There’s a lot to peel back to fully understand it.”

Cryptic website Whatisreallyunderneath.com offered a first glimpse as 2019 wound to a close. Obvious single choices from the heart of the album – the haunting Sulfur Surrounding and furiously bombastic The Easy Way – were eschewed in favour of the record’s less revealing bookends, Underneath and Swallowing The Rabbit Whole. “The second people think they’ve figured Code Orange out, we’ll already be 10 steps ahead,” smiles Shade.

“We love misdirection,” Jami nods. “It’s cool watching people’s reactions, when they still have no idea what they’re gonna get.”

One of the album’s biggest surprises dropped with that second single’s shattering music video: Jami has stepped away from the drums, recording percussion for the record but handing over live duties to an unnamed, masked friend. “It was time,” Jami shrugs, simply. “We’ve been working with a handicap in some regards, with my effort split between drumming and vocals. I don’t even really like drumming that much. I know nothing about gear. I don’t even know what sizes my drums are sometimes. It’s something I’ve done since I was a little kid and it facilitated my path with the band. But now that’s over, and I’m actually really glad.”

Further revelations mustn’t be spoiled: music, multimedia and, crucially, the savage live performance that has always been at the band’s heart. There is eight to nine hours of practice a day, the drawing up of mind-bending visuals, and even a drive for increased physical presence that’s seen Joe pack on 20lbs of muscle. “You don’t just need to feel the part,” he says. “You need to be the part.”

Is there a point, we wonder, where that obsession with this vision becomes unhealthy? Aside from writing, recording and production, the band are hands-on with all aesthetic design, run their own webstore (with Reba designing the site, making mock-ups and Joe shipping out every order), while Dom has even taken to costume design, creating many of the garments seen in recent videos. “I’ve enjoyed sewing since high school,” he explains. “It’s another way to express my creativity.”

“It’s a lot,” Jami admits. “In many ways it’s becoming a monster.” Pointing to a pre-Christmas merch competition that was supposed to be handled externally but ended with the band making and sending items to winners themselves, however, he stresses that no-one is better-equipped to fulfil this vision than the band. “We would drive fucking prizes to the fans’ houses, if that’s what it took to present this as it needs to be presented.

“It’s like a factory,” he expands. “It definitely borders on obsession. Bands get a lot of credit for that, but other people [in the real world] have to go down a coal mine every day. I just don’t want to go to the grave wishing that we did this or worked harder on that, because that stuff will rot you. We’re putting in maximum effort. If the candle burns out, it burns out. It is what it is.”

There’s a thin line between hard truths and arrogance. It’s one that needs to be walked, however, when it’s not just one band’s career on the line, but the future of heavy music. The road to success, Code Orange understand, perhaps better than anyone, is not a path to be followed, but a trail to be blazed.

“You can’t understand the world only reading social media, and you can’t understand heavy music only listening to the top metal acts from the past 20 years,” Shade explains. “The lack of anything new is what stops people getting into rock and metal. Even at home in Pittsburgh, the rock station is playing the same shit since I’ve been six years old. No-one has heard anything groundbreaking in metal for a long time.

Metallica, Slipknot, Korn, whatever… Credit to those bands for having gotten where they have. But they’re not interested in tipping the scales because they know people will flip on you in a second. We see that window. We’ve made an album that’s groundbreaking, reflective of technology and these times that we live in. It’s something that kids can relate to rather than the same shit they’ve been hearing for 15 years already. Those bands have everything to lose. We have nothing. That shit’s old. This is the new.”

“We know the ways that we could take ourselves from having to fight for every inch to being able to jump a mile overnight,” Jami acknowledges of how many contemporaries have found success as copies of copies. “But at the end of the day, that’s not what our souls are willing to allow us to do.” In initial interviews, he raved that no other release this year would be as “relevant” as that bearing his band’s name. A few weeks in, he’s cooled slightly, acknowledging that imminent new work from visionary veterans like Gojira and Deftones will have plenty to offer. He’s insistent, though, that none will precipitate change like Underneath.

“I believe that this record could open the door for a lot of people. We targeted that. Maybe not thinking specifically in terms of a ‘gateway record’ but asking, ‘What if a band made their most layered, complicated album while keeping it hard and catchy as hell?’ That’s incredibly hard to achieve, but if it’s not your goal, what’s the point? We wrote something interestingly obscure but with repeat value. It’s a rollercoaster ride, not a long tour. Hopefully it leads somewhere great.”

As the horizon opens, we wonder whether they’re leaving their hardcore roots behind. “The way we carry ourselves in our morals, in how we approach this game, in how we approach our decision making in terms of what we will and will not do is 100 per cent rooted in hardcore,” Jami answers. Take their upcoming appearance at infamous hipster haven, the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival. “The most important thing isn’t even at the show itself,” he continues. “Being a tiny blip on the second line of that line-up hasn’t made my life. It’s about showing that people like us can be on a show like that. This record can absolutely change the game. That’s not from a place of arrogance, either. There are so many opportunities for bands to do something different. We’re getting to a certain idea first, but hopefully we can bring people along for the ride.”

“The reason a lot of people liked our band in the first place,” adds Reba, “was that we were just going with it, doing what we did, even if it wasn’t necessarily perfect or right. I think that’s what hardcore is about: not necessarily being the best at your instrument, but doing what you love, putting the time in, honing your craft and learning along the way.”

It’s an evolution – and an obsession – that won’t be ending anytime soon.

“We’ve put more work into this than anything we’ve ever done,” Reba concludes. “In that sense, it’s our own culmination of our own selves. But none of us are putting limits on our goals. None of us ever have, otherwise we wouldn’t be here. Could we be the biggest band in the world and be satisfied? You’ll have to ask me when that happens. For now, I’m gonna say no.”

“We’re like vampires,” Jami grins. “We just want more.”

Underneath is out now via Roadrunner Records.

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