Code Orange: “The world needs rock bands”

Step into the fearless world of CODE ORANGE as they defy musical boundaries once again in ‘The Above.’ Check out our latest Upset cover story.

Words: Steven Loftin.

Code Orange are fearless. No matter your stance on their sonic shifts over the years, it’s plain to see that the Pennsylvania outfit have defiantly stuck by their guns. Releasing their first album as Code Orange in 2014 (they released their debut album ‘Love Is Love/Return To Dust’ in 2012 as Code Orange Kids), the band who terrifyingly careened around hardcore’s darkest edges on ‘I Am King’ are markedly different to the band in 2023.

‘The Above’ finds Code Orange exploring more spacious fields. While 2020’s ‘Underneath’ was a glitching matrix made to feel as if the factory walls were caving inwards – rust and debris falling with jagged edges – ‘The Above’ is the aftermath. The dust has settled, and the sky is here, but there’s still something in the air.

Frontman Jami Morgan puts it plainly: “The stakes have definitely gotten to their highest point.” Code Orange never do things by halves. They’re in control of everything, from the songs to the visuals to the artwork that wraps around the physical product, of which Jami proudly gives Dork a thorough Zoom walkthrough. “We seem to make each one a little bit more expansive and challenge ourselves, and hopefully challenge the audience, in different ways.”

This iteration of Code Orange is decidedly clearer. The six-piece – completed by Reba Meyers (guitar/vocals), Eric “Shade” Baldose (keyboards/programming), Joe Goldman (bass), Dominic Landolina (guitar), and Max Portnoy (drums) – are pulling into a lane that’s equal parts aggression and rumination. Preparing for the task involved asking themselves, “How do we make something that we would want to hear that has more repeat value and is hookier? Because that’s what we were interested in doing,” Jami explains. “But doesn’t lose any artistic credibility or any of the push forward that we desire and need to keep going.”

It’s a noticeable change that’s underpinned by a nostalgic, grunge-leaning tone. Where once it sounded like they were tearing through the internet to rip your world apart, now they’ve more studious rock music in their sights. It’s probably fair to say that Code Orange – that experimental hardcore band – are now a rock band.

“I feel like the world needs rock bands,” he asserts. Hardcore is still in their DNA, but Jami professes, “I feel like the world doesn’t necessarily need more amazing hardcore bands because there are great hardcore bands, but hardcore is not just a kind of music, it’s a culture, and it’s in our blood. You can even hear musically a lot of elements of it on the record. But I would love to represent in this world as a forward-thinking rock band.”

Progressive is certainly the word for Code Orange. “On this record, you’re going to hear rock, you’re going to hear metal, you’re going to hear extreme metal at times,” Jami confirms. “You’re gonna hear hardcore, electronic music, industrial, a little bit of hip-hop stuff, pop, fucking singer-songwriter stuff. It’s all the dark arts! It’s all in the world of things that we do. But I don’t see that as a bad thing; I would love to represent as the next great rock band, not just as a rock band.”

“The stakes have definitely gotten to their highest point”

Jami Morgan

Their next step in this endeavour is befitting. For Jami, ‘The Above’ plays out as a “hero’s journey”, as he puts it. “Or someone’s journey towards some sort of light – whether that’s the light of self-discovery or the light of success and adoration.” This is best represented with the eye boring down at you on the artwork. Upon closer inspection, it becomes evident the eye is hidden behind a ghoulish mask, the eyebrows more threatening than a brow should ever be. But as with everything Code Orange, there’s always that dark undertow. In this case of ‘The Above”s track listing: “There’s this dark parasitic thing pulling at them throughout.”

A case in point comes in the album’s opener. ‘Not So Far’ crunches to life with Jami’s rampant vocals over brooding sonics; Reba yanks the handbrake straight into a chorus befitting a twisted musical. It’s the perfect scene-setter for an album that plays out with the same organic experience as a human life. Which is by design, of course. This is Code Orange’s most personal effort to date.

Mashing vitriol with reflection, the purposefulness of ‘The Above’ truly comes to light the further you delve. “The metaphor I touched on earlier, this idea of light and different sources of it, and the inner light of self and the outer light of acceptance started to click in with what we’ve been feeling on our journey, [and] what I’ve been feeling personally,” he explains. “Battling against the many thoughts and voices and ideas that are constantly in my head and feelings of getting older, feelings of wanting to accomplish something, but also feelings of wanting to love yourself and respect the person in the mirror, that’s something I battle with – that’s something I’m sure other people do as well.”

It’s where the concept marries into the personal that offers Jami and co. more than just an album of explorative rock music. They’ve turned these evergreen feelings into a tangible world. “Things were coming together and coalescing in an aesthetic that I felt was fresh, that I didn’t see anybody else doing,” Jami says excitedly. “And something that would be representative of us in terms of the visuals and how we put the artwork together and the videos.”

Visuals are key to establishing the Code Orange vibe. It was initially launched with a curiously thrilling and terrifying cinematic trailer for the album while also teasing first single ‘Grooming My Replacement’. The first proper introduction to this next era of Code Orange came with ‘Take Form’. A bright, technicolour, wall-breaking video that calls to the early-90s heyday of MTV and the grunge movement, the track also features none other than Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan. Adding his melodic twist to the crushing song, it also feels befitting that on this somewhat conceptual project comes the 90s conceptual king.

“I would love to represent as the next great rock band, not just as a rock band”

Jami Morgan

“The only difference that I’ve noticed from talking to him is that we’re punk kids, so we’re a little more instant grat,” explains Jami. “So you’ll see our things are more compact and in shorter form. He’s into all kinds of rock and metal and expansive musical – I’m not acting like the guy’s my best friend, but I’ve been able to talk to him a little bit – and so you get these longer, bigger bodies of work. Our goal is to cram those things into something that’s a little briefer and a quicker roller coaster ride because, being hardcore kids, something that we value is the briefness of the journey. I would love to think that we’re kindred spirits. That’s a great boost for my ego,” Jami laughs.

Piecing together a project such as ‘The Above’ requires confidence. Long ago, they left their hardcore roots in search of something larger. Code Orange no longer fit into any ascertainable box. Instead, they are their own looming beast, devouring whatever sounds and styles suit their needs. Running from a brutal, blast-beat treat such as ‘The Mask of Sanity Slips’ into recent acoustic-led single ‘Mirror’ and back out into the frenetic ‘A Drone Opting Out Of The Hive’ is truly something special. On if they would’ve been able to craft something like ‘The Above’ five or ten years ago, “No, I don’t think we could have made this record then because I just don’t think it would have even made sense,” he reckons.

Jami believes, “It has to be step by step. I think we had to establish – I want to say dominance, but that sounds like a bad word – but we had to establish ourselves in these different corners and take them to the furthest extent they could go. On the last record, we took a certain sound to its limit, and the same thing on the record before. So you have to find new ways to go while still keeping your soul. And this record is full of soul. And it’s full of all the things that I love about all the different forms of alternative music.”

When it comes to Code Orange plotting out these brand new worlds of theirs, “I wouldn’t say everybody’s always on board,” admits Jami. “I think everybody always has belief in each other and is down to hear each other out. But people have different opinions… once they see the whole package, then it clicks in. But everyone’s always on board and working hard and bringing ideas that I would never think of and crafting in a way that I never could. It’s a total team sport.”

Code Orange carry a palpable sense of urgency. The studious nature of their ascent and the driven nature which got them there (“We’ve never taken a shortcut”) makes for a formidable force. “Boxes needed to be checked. You can’t rush it; you have to build it up. And no matter what anyone says, if you listen to our discography, you can hear the seeds for every single thing that we do here building throughout,” Jami says. “It’s all pretty linear in a way that has different sounds and feels different but better performances, some things are for people who are into certain things for sure, but the seeds of these songs were on our very first record.”

This also all makes for ‘The Above”s openness coming full circle, opposing their previous impenetrable nature. “For our band, we needed to go through everything we’ve gone through,” ends Jami, “flexing different muscles at different times to grow into this monster.” ■

Code Orange’s album ‘The Above’ is out 29th September. Follow Upset’s Spotify playlist here.