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"The last couple of years have been the hardest we've ever had," says Code Orange frontman Jami Morgan. "And it's not even close."
While every band suffered from the coronavirus pandemic, the Pittsburgh heavyweights were kneecapped particularly hard. Underneath — their third album since changing their name from Code Orange Kids, and second for Roadrunner Records — dropped on March 13th, 2020, just days before nationwide lockdowns went into effect.
In addition to a byzantine album-making process that nearly drove the band to the brink of insanity, Code Orange had worked themselves to the bone designing an elaborate stage setup for a headlining tour they'd have to cancel the day before takeoff.
They adapted by putting on innovative livestream events during the pandemic's first year, but the band desperately wanted Underneath to launch them beyond the underground scene they'd already conquered with 2014's brutal I Am King and 2017's catchier, more industrialized Forever.
Sure, they already had a Grammy nomination on their resume for Forever (they'd earn another nom in 2021 for Underneath), had logged tours supporting Deftones and Trivium, and were signed to a major label.
But in the age of pitiful Spotify payouts, rising young bands need to be on the road to make money. And with that prospect gone, Code Orange were still effectively starving artists operating on a shoestring budget compared to their arena-headlining peers in Grammy-land.
They put everything they had to give into Underneath, an anxious, gutsy, oppressively digitized hardcore blitzkrieg that, while appreciated by many, didn't provide the breakthrough into career stability that they were aiming for.
"You work so hard on something and then it comes out and then you're hit in that way," he laments, reflecting soberly on Underneath's unfortunate timing.
Morgan also acknowledges that he and his bandmates were fortunate to come out the other end of the pandemic in good health. But "in terms of a band, it was hard," he says.
"When you're trying to drag it up a hill like we were for a year, there're ripple effects of that. It's very tough to feel like you have something really amazing that you're presenting, and to feel stifled in a way."
"But I do feel that, genuinely, everything happens for a reason," Morgan adds, his mood perking up. "I feel all the darkness had created this little opening, and I could see the other side."
Code Orange's transcendent new album, The Above, is a chronicle of the band's epic journey to the other side. And to create it, they went for broke — again.
It was their most physically taxing and involved recording process yet. The album is filled with their most ambitious musical ideas. The theme — a cinematic juxtaposition between light and dark, reality and illusion, organic and digital, and a lyrical portrayal of the band's roller-coaster journey through self-doubt and industry fuckery towards epiphanic purity — is, well, operatic.
In many ways, it made Code Orange stronger than ever. It also might've broken them.
"I don't know how much more we have in us," Morgan muses. "I really don't. But I know that we had it this time, and we really gave it all this time."
The 30-year-old Morgan is seated in the living room of his and his girlfriend's Pittsburgh apartment, which he excitedly shows off to Revolver's Zoom screen before our conversation begins.
He beckons proudly to his neatly organized dining area, tips his laptop to show off the bright, flowery colors of his living room decor, and points to a blooming backyard with lush, green grass and a white garden arbor.
Then, he introduces us to Shelly, his 30-year-old pet tortoise; a creature that's wired with an innate nonchalance and sedentary Zen that Morgan — breathlessly diligent and verbally locomotive as ever — juxtaposes greatly.
"The band is my life, and all I do is think about this thing, man," he sighs. Code Orange has been Morgan's sole focus in life since he co-founded the band as a 14-year-old in 2008. He's never made time for other hobbies and interests. "I wonder sometimes what it would be like to think about something else."
For now, it's all Code, all the time. Seconds after showing off his new digs, you can see Morgan's gears turn as he remarks on how the floral, bucolic setting of his current living space — a stark contrast to the dark, austere apartment he lived in back in 2020 when we discussed the dank, claustrophobic Underneath — may have subconsciously influenced the aesthetics of The Above.
Albums are multimedia creations for Code Orange — Morgan, guitarist-vocalist Reba Meyers, synth-programmer Eric "Shade" Balderose, bassist Joe Goldman, guitarist Dom Landolina and drummer Max Portnoy — and the artwork, photos and accompanying videos for their latest are immensely inspired by films like Vanilla Sky, Requiem for a Dream and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
"I like how all those movies look," Morgan enthuses. "Film is at its peak, we're using digital elements, but it hasn't gotten to this mid-2000s, ugly, digital thing yet. The same way metal did."
The Above's elaborate packaging features blossoming flowers, creamy white borders, naturalistic fonts and a back-cover photo of the band standing in a ripe beach sunset. At first glance, it evokes the warmest feelings of any Code Orange visual era yet, but a closer look reveals the macabre truth beneath it all.
The band's name is a twisted composite of creepy bugs and decayed flora. The blue-eyed figure on the front cover has a face with visible stitches, hinting that fabrication is afoot. And the top edge of the balmy beach photo is peeled back to unveil that it's just a canvas, artificially glowing inside a dark, constructed studio.
"This thing is definitely the most effort, once again, that I've put into any singular project," Morgan says. To wit, he even adopted a new look that mirrors the album's heaven-soaked-with-battery-acid visual setting, bleaching his hair and trading his industrial-raver leathers for tattered white tees and blue jeans.
Musically, The Above inhabits that elevated plane. The 14-track album is by far Code Orange's most eclectic yet, packing in towering grunge anthems, vein-popping hardcore surges and theatrical, genre-fucking rock songs that wriggle between melody and menace.
There are screaming guitar solos, elegant string arrangements and moody trip-hop beats. Morgan and Meyers sing — fuck that, belt — with more gusto, skill and soul-scraping emotion than ever before. Smashing Pumpkins mastermind Billy Corgan even shows up to guest on the Mellon Collie-esque highlight "Take Shape."
Superstar alt-rock engineer Steve Albini (the guy who did Nirvana's In Utero) recorded the band live in his famed Electrical Audio studio, capturing a raw, organic side of Code Orange that contrasts purposefully with the mechanized density of Forever and Underneath.
The band are prouder of it than anything they've ever done, but Morgan isn't naive. He knows that the album and its many intricacies could completely backfire on Code Orange. After all, they are a band who came from hardcore and still have roots in the scene.
And despite the genre's increased openness to sonic diversity (as seen in the success of peers like Turnstile, Scowl and Zulu), everything Code Orange are presenting on The Above — gallant hooks, experimental production, heady lyrical themes — has the potential to alienate more headbangers than it attracts.
"My life could be really turned upside down by this going terribly in a terrible way," Morgan deadpans, before a smile cracks through his teeth. "That's what bands should do! Put your nuts on the table. Roll the dice. Do something fresh. Change your fucking hair. Change your whole fucking vibe and just go for it, man."
Change has been a constant in camp Code over the last three years. Since live music returned, Morgan moved from behind the drums — where he'd always sat screaming and pounding — to holding the mic as the band's de facto frontman.
The guy they recruited to fill Morgan's spot behind the kit only lasted a year. So, the group tapped Portnoy — son of ex-Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy, and bandleader of his own metalcore band Tallah — to become their full-time drummer. He's been working out great.
Portnoy, who Morgan calls a "superstar," immediately meshed with Code Orange's intense practice regime and recently moved to Pittsburgh, where the band formed all those years ago and still calls home base today.
There have been other shifts behind the scenes. Code Orange have new management now, and left Roadrunner Records for Blue Grape Music, a new label spearheaded by former Roadrunner executives David Rath and Cees Wessels.
Otherwise, the band have only become more independent and driven in their singular vision. Balderose, the band's co-founding guitarist who's since become their programmer and synth player, also leveled up to become their in-house engineer while making The Above.
His ability to record and produce Code Orange's music, without having to rely on an outside producer like they did in the past, has brought them to a higher tier of machine-like efficiency.
"It feels incredibly powerful in terms of what we can achieve," says Balderose, speaking from his apartment a couple days after Code Orange returned from a successful European tour in late June.
He points to "Shatter" — the theme song they wrote for WWE wrestler Bray Wyatt in 2022 — as an example of the band's growing self-sufficiency. Within 24 hours of receiving the offer, Code Orange had not only written the song, but they were set up in their studio to track it.
"We can do pretty much anything that we need to do," Balderose underscores. "There's nothing holding us back."
Meyers agrees. During a Zoom call from the road in Europe — the day after Code Orange co-headlined Manchester, England's Outbreak Fest (which Morgan calls an "all-timer" set) — the guitarist-singer is feeling optimistic about where the band is at both internally and creatively.
"Things are coming around full circle for us, in terms of our sound and everything," says Meyers, who also co-founded Code Orange with Morgan and Balderose.
"I think the Underneath phase of our journey was probably one of the most difficult phases, and I think now it's getting a little bit more relaxed, in the sense of just knowing where we're at and knowing what we want."
Indeed, their vision for The Above reflects a new level of confidence among the band. Befitting that self-assurance, Morgan calls it Code Orange's "Black Album"— in reference to Metallica's 1991 anthemic hard-rock blockbuster. Balderose and Meyers both use the word "open" to describe its sound. Collectively, all three founding members believe that it's their most definitive statement to date.
"I'm ready to prove to everybody that we don't need a producer at this point," Balderose says. "We don't need anything. That's why we left Roadrunner. That's why we've done several business decisions in the recent past that've basically spun us on our own.
"We're ready to just do the shit and take credit for it. Because we're one of the hardest working bands out here."
Someone who recognizes — and probably feels a kinship with — their uncompromising drive is Billy Corgan, a flamboyant obsessive who's proudly run Smashing Pumpkins on his own terms for over 30 years.
While Corgan's voice briefly pops up during the bridge of "Take Shape," Meyers says that their collaborative hangout session involved "more talking than playing." The grunge god affirmed Code Orange's rule-breaking approach to songwriting and encouraged them to "trust your instinct," as Meyers recalls.
Her biggest takeaway from Corgan was, "don't try to conform to anyone else's idea." For Morgan, it was his advice to "fucking swing for the hills."
Swing, they did. For Underneath, the band created painstakingly detailed demos of their head-scratching songs and then brought them to two outside producers — Nick Raskulinecz (Ghost, Korn, Foo Fighters) and Will Yip (Turnstile, Nothing) — to recreate them from the ground up.
But it turned out that Code Orange's specific vision — that their traditional rock instrumentation would be spliced, cyborg-like, with Balderose's heavy electronic programming — really only made sense to the band. So the whole process was cumbersome to say the least.
"No one really does what we did on that record as far as how we [made] it," explains Balderose, who relied on the direction of programming wizard Chris Vrenna (Nine Inch Nails) to keep him from walking off the job. "In some ways it was a nightmare. In other ways, it was a revelation for me."
For The Above, Balderose took on the role that Raskulinecz, Yip, and on previous records, Converge's Kurt Ballou, had filled: sitting behind the decks with Pro Tools running while the band worked through the new songs. Anything Balderose picked up during those sessions was a potential candidate for the final record, and the band could tinker with all their far-out ideas.
Crucially, Balderose also speaks Morgan's esoteric language. The singer-songwriter (who split playing drums 50/50 with Portnoy on The Above) had a notepad of abstract song objectives that he'd commission Balderose to try and bring to life on the computer.
"Jami's ideas were insane," Balderose says, shaking his head. "He'll be like, 'I want a beat that sounds like the difference between right and wrong.'"
After months of clicking puzzle pieces together, the band traveled to Albini's studio in Chicago to do something they'd never done before: record the core of the band (guitars, bass, drums) live in a room, no overdubs and no mixed-and-matched takes like the hyper-chopped-up Underneath.
The reason they went with Albini is precisely because the eccentric engineer famously offers no creative input like a typical producer would. He's just there to use his world-class studio to record the best possible sound according to the band's wishes.
"It was probably our best recording experience ever," says Balderose. Meyers believes it captured a side of the band that wasn't present on previous records. "It brought a little bit more of our personality into the music, which sometimes gets lost in the recording process," she says. "Whereas live, it has that kind of energy."
From there, Code Orange took the record back to Pittsburgh where they spent many more months recording vocals, adding in Balderose's electronic parts, tracking strings and assembling the goods for those enigmatic visuals.
Balderose says he can't wait for people to hear it: "So I can feel justified in the torment I put myself through." Morgan sounds simultaneously proud and a touch plaintive while recounting the exhausting affair.
"I see the process in the future having to be different, because it was very immersive," Morgan says. "People can only be stretched so far [to] where they can snap back and regenerate. Some people, when they're stretched, they stay stretched."
Code Orange keep putting themselves through these Sisyphean undertakings — making these all-encompassing albums, militantly practicing, taking on way too many day-to-day tasks (merch fulfillment, web design, video creation) — because it's the only way they know how. It's the only way it's worth it for them.
During The Above's titanic closing title-track, Morgan and Meyers sing with all their might over crunching guitars, "Acceptance is a faraway place, but I'll keep beating it in/If I'm still breathing," underscoring their die-hard commitment to chasing the light at the end of the tunnel.
From there, the chorus fades into industrial racket and the song ends with the same distorted pulsation that chimes at the top of I Am King, creating a literal loop between today and where Code Orange's kids-less journey began almost 10 years ago.
"Is this going to be our last record? No, I don't think so," Morgan deliberates after an hour of intense, introspective discussion that's laced with twinges of conclusive language. "It's the end of something, though. I think it's also the beginning of something else much greater."
Furthermore, he says "fuck that" to the mere idea of an I Am King 10-year-anniversary tour, even if the fans wanted it. Even though Code Orange openly desire the material means to make their highly conceptual art without putting themselves in financial peril, they'd rather fail than take the easy route.
Risking it all with an album like The Above is the only way.
"When I look at the landscape of popular music, the hole is there for The Above," Morgan forecasts. "Who knows how it's going to go? I think that's a beautiful thing. To me, that's fun. That's how this shit should be.
"It should be in-your-face. It should be a dice roll. It shouldn't be just trying to maintain. We never wanted to maintain. Did we put our money where our mouth is? Is this a maintenance record, my friend?"
"No," he abruptly enthuses. "It's a fucking put-your-whole-career-on-the-line record — again. And we just keep doing it. And we're just going to keep doing it."