Album review: Code Orange – What Is Really Underneath?
Code Orange peer down the rabbit-hole of 2020’s scorching Underneath…
Code Orange are back, and they’re more formidable than ever before. Drummer and vocalist Jami Morgan takes us inside the band’s explosive new album, Underneath
Three years after they changed the game with their 5K-rated album Forever, Pittsburgh noise terrorists Code Orange have returned with news of their highly-anticipated fourth LP, Underneath. Kerrang! were lucky enough to be among the first to hear it, and we can already confirm it is breathtaking. An incredible artistic achievement from a band who are fearless in their approach to heaviness, and who unleashed an arsenal of weapons to create the most destructive record of the year. Rather than being Forever 2.0., Underneath exists as its own beast, an evolution away from the all-out war of that 2017 breakthrough into a more realised vision of pain.
“I see [2014 album] I Am King as the inception, Forever as the revenge and I see this record as the becoming,” mainman Jami Morgan tells us today, buzzing as he’s finally able to discuss a project that has consumed his life for the past few years.
As well as being almost obnoxiously heavy in its approach, Underneath sees Code Orange experiment more with electronics and anything else that takes their fancy – from glitches to gunshots. The band pride themselves on being at the cutting edge of what is happening in music, admitting that their 2018 EP The Hurt Will Go On was “to test the temperatures of rock and metal”. And, as Jami explains in typically confident fashion, nothing is more current than Underneath…
Forever received high praise from fans and critics across the board. Did you feel pressure going into Underneath?
“I think there’s definitely an internal pressure, but I don’t think it’s really based on what people thought of Forever; we just thought it was time to make something that truly culminates our sound. On Forever, we started that vision in a lot of ways, and we were really happy with what came out of it, but we wanted to put it all together and make something extremely intricate and forward-thinking without losing the element of music that makes it entertaining and fun to listen to. We’re really taking it a lot further than anyone else would take it.”
What’s the story that holds it together?
“The record is about duality. It’s about having to face yourself and having to face ourselves as a society in this super overcrowded, overexposed, totally all-consuming digital-based world that we live in, plus all the feelings, insecurities and consequences of living lives based on screens. It goes into different elements of how the world we’re living in affects people’s psyche and causes them to act. It’ll be interesting to see how people react. A lot of thought has gone into every single inch of it.”
It’s super-aggressive and violent, but what’s fuelling this rage?
“I don’t know if it’s fuelled by rage, but we wanted to go into a number of different emotions. We want to manipulate people’s senses. Obviously at the end of the day we’re angry individuals, like many people are, and this record is about being trapped inside a shell of yourself that your ego has created, or the world has created for you. It’s about being trapped in that perception, or being trapped by technology and how that affects your mind-set, living as an eternal passenger and having to watch life from that perspective instead of actually doing something. I think a lot of people are slowly being comforted into that through the way we treat each other, the way that criticism and influence is this insane echo chamber that gets deeper and darker. The record’s a lot about perception.”
Why did you choose to release the title-track as the first single?
“I think the song is indicative of the theme of the record, and it’s a little more cathartic because of its place in the tracklist. It encapsulates different aspects of the record. The record has all kind of different songs; most songs have different feels to them. We like to always start people with the title-track of the record, and a lot of times it’s a different kind of song than Underneath, but it’s an interesting hybrid of some of the stuff we can do. The next taste people get of the record will surely be a lot more violent.”
The song is also one of the album’s more melodic ones. Underneath as a whole somehow feels more melodic and more discordant than Forever…
“I think that our goal, and probably will always be our goal, is to take whatever we do to the next level – and all levels are turned up to 100 on this thing. We’ve not always been good at it, but we’ve always had a lot of melody in our music. It’s a much more psychotic record but somehow our most melodic record, but melodic in our way; we’re trying to define our own versions of these tropes that exist in heavy music and I don’t think it’s that comparable to other people in heavy music. We wanted to create a psychological experience – not just music, not just visuals. We want to create an immersive, 4D experience where there’s a lot to unpack and create a world to take people to.”
As well as it being sonically brutal, what were the lyrical inspirations?
“I wanna leave layers unpeeled for now, but this is more lyrically deep than any record we have ever done, including our first record, which was a lot more emotional – there was more bravado on I Am King in a lot of ways. Forever doesn’t get the credit for what I was trying to say because a lot of the key lines have a lot of bravado to them. I put a lot of effort into this and none of the lyrics are phoned in. It all has meaning in the story and the concept of the record.”
What’s the meaning behind the title?
“Some of this stuff I don’t want to over-explain – I want people to listen to it and get into later. But in the simplest way it’s about peeling back the layers of perception and the reasoning why horrible things happen. Peeling back the reasons why we create barriers and defences for ourselves. Going inside, going underneath your own skin to see what makes you do what you do and why. It’s about digging deeper, under the surface, and going down the rabbit hole of your deepest fears and anxieties.”
And this idea of peeling back layers ties into the album artwork, right?
“There’s a familiar character in the album artwork. It was designed to be the man scarred with I Am King and burned in the fires of Forever, and now trapped inside this almost alien mudman, glass shell of himself.”
Was it an intense creative process?
“You’ve heard it, there’s a lot going on (laughs)! This thing took a lot – to say it was an intense creative process is a great understatement. It took a tremendous amount of work. I can’t even tell you how long! It’s a headphones record in a lot of ways, because there’s a lot buried and hidden. I see it more as a film in that way.”
When did you start working on it?
“We’ve been working on the songs for three years – since the last record came out – and intensely working on it for a year-and-a-half or two years. It’s a long time. We’ve been working on it every single day; there’s not a day where it hasn’t been worked on in some aspect. Part of that is because we’re hyper-controlling and are deeply invested in everything other than the music. We worked with some new people, some old people, some trusted people… We’ve been working on it for a long time and doing surgery on it. I hope that experimentation comes through to the listener.”
Who produced the record?
“It was produced by Nick Raskulinecz [Deftones, Foo Fighters], it was produced by us – I mean that in a real sense – and Will Yip. Shade [guitars, electronics] did the mix with Will, and we were all there for the mix as well (laughs). It’s been very tough on the people we worked with. Shade worked with Chris Vrenna from Nine Inch Nails on a lot of the programming and he was there throughout, too. It was a team effort, spearheaded by us with a vision, with everybody trying to make it happen and working 20 hours a day for a year-and-a-half.”
With all these experimental elements going on throughout Underneath, do you still consider Code Orange to be a hardcore band?
“Of course. That’s what we’re rooted in. I think something that’s cool about the record is that it’s our most psychotic shit. You can’t point to it and say, ‘That’s not hard.’ It’s some of the hardest shit that there is – not just from us. Period. I’m proud of that because we love heavy music, and hardcore is always going to be where we start. I think that we have moved diagonally with this record; it’s not like we said, ‘Okay, we need to go more art and forget the hardcore.’ We don’t care. I know that, when we want to be, we can be the hardest band on Earth. There are some of those parts on the record, 100 per cent. We can also do the rest of it and write stuff that’s ‘experimental’. It covers all those things in a way that hasn’t been done before.”
What do you hope that fans will take away from it?
“I just want them to go down the journey. I want them to enjoy the psychological journey and see what they come up with. I think it’s important to guide people in a general theme, but there’s a lot here and it’s like a movie. It goes deep into this world and I would like them to take the ride – it’s a thrill-ride of a record.”
Code Orange are playing Coachella later this year. How do you think you will go down?
“They’re gonna get it. There are a lot of things people don’t know about what we’re gonna be doing in the live regard. This is a whole new ball game now, a whole new chapter. This is how we do it, so we’ll hopefully surprise people. Everyone, not just Coachella. We’re not just getting up there and putting on our guitars and rocking, it’s going to be a whole thing. I’m excited for people to see what we’ve been working on and how we’re going to present it. I think Coachella is going to be interesting, but I’m not putting too much stock in how people react there – we’re going to be the best band on Earth there, like we are every day.”
Finally, what do you plan and hope to achieve in this next era?
“We want to grow and do things that bands from our world haven’t been afforded the opportunity to, which we have scratched and clawed our way to do so far – like Coachella. We’re gonna take those opportunities and swing for the fence; we’re gonna put it all on the line, and see where it can go. I think in rock and metal there’s a lot of great stuff, but there’s not a ton of stuff that feels super-relevant. I think a lot of older stuff feels more relevant now than some current stuff coming out. I’m not saying that about hardcore or extreme music, but in terms of something that cracks the surface – which I intend on doing – I don’t feel like there’s anything incredibly relevant in a way that’s not just trying to be a see-through cash-in attempt to co-opt what’s cool. This record isn’t that, but it’s more relevant than anything that’s coming out in rock and metal this year. Period.”
Underneath is due out on March 13 via Roadrunner Records.
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