There's a corner of the internet still clinging on to the idea that Code Orange are theirs. “When did Code Orange go from a legit hardcore band to a WWE soundtrack band?” bleated one Reddit user at the start of 2023. “Anyone still interested in what Code Orange does next or are they too far gone for y’all,” waaaah-ed another in June. The gist of it is: Code Orange have sold out. If they thought that after hearing 2020’s head-spinning industronumetalcore glitchbomb Underneath, they’ll shit their pants at The Above. Just as Underneath was a huge leap forwards from 2017’s Forever, with its Grammy-nominated title track, so Code Orange’s fifth album completely dismantles its predecessor, then reconstructs it into entirely new shapes.
The key difference this time around is that CO seem to be actively embracing the notion that there’s an audience for them outside of their core constituency. As forward-looking as Underneath was, it was a wilfully tough listen in places: the sound of a dozen laptops glitching at once while somebody played obscure Ministry and Korn covers in the next room. The Above doesn’t shy away from that kind of sonic confrontation, but it’s balanced out by the newfound commercial muscle that was signposted by 2021’s nu metal homage of standalone single Out For Blood and Shatter, last year’s epic collaboration with much-missed wrestler Bray Wyatt. This is obvious within the first 60 seconds of opener Never Far Apart, as the brooding heavy-electronic backing and frontman Jami Morgan’s sung-hissed vocals give way to tumbling piano chords, sawing strings and a plaintively enigmatic vocal hook from guitarist/singer Reba Meyer: ‘We will never be far apart / Do you have memories from the start.’
It’s a bold move to drop that in so early, but then this is a bold album and then some. The sense of Code Orange’s ambition is backed up by the presence of former Nirvana producer/US underground linchpin Steve Albini, who engineered the album, and The Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan, who adds a distinctive vocal interlude to the steamrolling but insanely catchy Take Shape.
It may be coincidence, but the influence of the Pumpkins is audible elsewhere, most obviously on Snapshot and Circle Through, the latter of which threads a propulsive melody through its machine-like percussive chug, even throwing in a subtle ‘whoa-oh’ backing vocal just to piss off the purists. Elsewhere, the floating-in-space interludes and unsettling glitches of Theatre Of Cruelty nod to Deftones and the hooky The Mask Of Sanity Slips fuses big, echoing 80s basslines to the squealing guitar harmonics of nu metal. They even throw a bone to those old-school hardcore kids who’ve stuck around for the ride with the brief explosion that is Grooming My Replacement.
There’s too much going on to digest here on just one listen, or two or even five: from the stripped-down electro- goth balladry of Mirror, to the industrial metal hip hop mash-up of Splinter The Soul, and the 90s alt rock callback But A Dream... But in its willingness to move forward and break down genre boundaries, The Above is everything modern heavy music should be but all too often isn’t. If this is selling out, more bands should try it.