The Lowdown: Pittsburgh metallic hardcore outfit Code Orange flirted with mainstream sensibility on their last album, 2017’s Forever. That LP split its time between the virulent and metallic sound they mastered earlier in their career and a newfound melodic (even radio-friendly) sensibility. On their ambitious follow-up, Underneath, they fuse both sides of their personality together and expand even further, with a new focus on technicality and electronic elements. Code Orange follow every creative impulse, and in doing so, deliver their best and most original album thus far.
The Good: Underneath is the record Code Orange have been threatening to deliver since they had the word “Kids” in their name. It foregrounds glitchy industrial touches and synthesizes them with a chaotic, mathematical approach without sacrificing the melodic ground that the band gained on Forever. If anything, these songs are more memorable and cohesive than those on its predecessor. Drummer-vocalist Jami Morgan and guitarist-vocalist Reba Meyers have perfected their twin-throated approach, and also sharpened their hooks to a practically atom-thick point.
On tracks like “Sulphur Surrounding” and especially the late-game powerhouse “Autumn and Carbine”, Code Orange weave the clean vocal hooks that made “Bleeding the Blur” such a revelation without deviating from the low of the record as a whole. Elsewhere, on “You and You Alone”, Morgan takes point and delivers a similarly anthemic song without any melody at all. These songs are impressive in their own right, but Underneath doesn’t play like a collection of singles. Instead, repeated use of samples as motifs and some clever sequencing lend it the kind of narrative flow listeners might expect from a concept album by a progressive rock band — and like the best concept records, it begs for a repeat listen when it’s over.
The Bad: It’s a struggle to find a single bad thing to say about Underneath. Some purists will say the record kowtows to the returning popularity of nu-metal tropes, and there’s some truth in that statement. Morgan’s occasional rap-inflected delivery telegraphs nostalgia for the radio-metal sound that dominated the turn of the century. However, Code Orange commit to those choices without coming across corny or hackneyed. The lyrics could be a little more emotionally nuanced, but this is metallic hardcore — it’s not meant to be Robert Frost.
The Verdict: In 2020, Code Orange have entered their imperial phase. Underneath spreads its tendrils in every direction, reaches into the coffers of diverse genres like grunge, industrial, death metal, intellectual dance music, and assimilates them all into a cohesive whole. More impressively, it does so without sacrificing their hardcore roots. It delivers on every promise in a sleek, incredibly catchy package and does it all in under 50 minutes. Yes, it’s music made by young adults obviously aimed at young adults. Yes, it could be more subtle about its influences. And yes, it’s going to make a whole lot of year-end lists.
Essential Tracks: “Swallowing the Rabbit Whole”, “You and You Alone”, “Sulfur Surrounding”, “Autumn and Carbine”, “Underneath”