by S. Winters
Let’s take a good look at you.
Pittsburgh hardcore ensemble Code Orange’s fourth full-length album Underneath begins with a noisy intro track littered with this haunting phrase. The words will be heard again throughout the record, though sparsely. They give us some insight into the artistic intent of Underneath – we aren’t examining the music as the listeners, but rather, the music is examining us. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it becomes more evident as we venture further into the album.
Code Orange is known for their music’s self-serious attitude, and Underneath doubles down on that reputation. Jami Morgan’s meaty, overbearing scream dominates many of the tracks on this record (e.g. “Swallowing the Rabbit Whole” and “Back Inside the Glass”). However, unlike the band’s previous releases, Reba Meyers’ Underoath-reminiscent clean singing is given full rein on several of Underneath’s more industrial tracks (e.g. “Who I Am” and “A Sliver”). Her singing is a welcome reprieve from Jami’s assault, and it complements her chunky guitar playing wonderfully. Both vocalists contribute equally to the album’s tone of scrutiny of its listeners, and as the audience, we can’t help but feel like there’s someone in the room with us, always just out of sight, but uncomfortably present all the same.
The instrumental and electronic components on Underneath see Code Orange evolving appreciably. Their 2018 extended play The Hunt Will Go On experimented past the pure hardcore punk attack we’ve been used to from this band, but the new record sounds far more mature. Instead of sprinkling noise and electronics over top of their proven hardcore formula, Underneath’s songs sound like they were written with each electronic and ambient effect in mind from the start. As hinted at above, Code Orange has also taken an industrial turn on several of these tracks. Take note, however – this isn’t the oft-dreaded “softening” many metalcore and hardcore bands have undergone. Though a couple of songs are sonically mellow enough for mainstream radio, they play a vital role in the oppressive, almost totalitarian soundscape that is Underneath.
The guitar work on Underneath is the backbone of the album—which is to say, it isn’t groundbreaking, but it’s solid. There are a number of especially memorable riffs and breakdowns, and though they’re all distinct, they don’t vary from one another thematically, which contributes to the album’s cohesion. The breakdown found on “Cold.Metal.Place” deserves a special mention for its squealing, bouncy feel. Jami Morgan’s drumming is simple yet effective, and he finds space to spice things up in more than a few places on the record. Unfortunately, Underneath’s mix does not prominently feature the bassist, although he sits behind and supports the dual guitarists adequately.
Underneath has a lot going on lyrically and thematically. According to Jami, Code Orange’s albums form the character arc of the figure who graces the album covers beginning with I Am King. On Underneath’s artwork, the man is “trapped in a glass shell of technology and perception” . This description does not just apply to the fictional character, though—on Underneath, the band weave a terrifying poem illustrating the reality of modern life. The advancement of technology has led to unprecedented progress for humans, but at the same time, it has significantly impaired our ability to relate to the people around us. Social media has amplified our individual voices, but as we become more widely aware of world events, we only sink deeper into alienation. Parasocial relationships have replaced legitimate personal connection. Underneath explores these topics with some ambiguity, but at times the message is unmistakable. “It’s hard to see anything when you can see everything,” croons Reba on “A Sliver”. We all know what she’s talking about.
Code Orange’s Underneath is not for everyone. Its implication of surveillance could set anyone on edge, and its analysis of the impacts of modern technology on people is nothing short of bleak. Admirable instrumental and vocal performances abound, along with a more diverse approach to songwriting than we’ve ever heard from this band. Do yourself a favor and give this record a listen.
Underneath released via Roadrunner Records on March 13, 2020. Purchase or stream it here: https://codeorange.lnk.to/underneath
 Interview with Jami Morgan by Consequence of Sound: https://consequenceofsound.net/2020/03/code-orange-jami-morgan-interview-2020/