Review Summary: Time will tell if they're the kings they say they are, but this record sure as hell doesn't hurt their claim to the throne, and taking 33 minutes to step inside their world is quite a rewarding venture.
"No boxes. No boundaries. No fear. Out with the old. In with the new. No mercy." These words, attached to every preview of this album (and really, everything related to it), suggest something meant to tear down all manner of expectations and perceptions with furious efficiency. From the blunt statements that permeated the band's Facebook and Twitter pages to the foreboding and bloody imagery present in the music videos that preceded this album's release, it's overtly apparent that this record carries the promise of a violent means to a new beginning. Code Orange isn't *trying* to be the new hardcore. Code Orange, as they clearly state, *is* the new hardcore - a statement which, on the surface, appears quite brash to tie to a sophomore LP. To invoke such statements implies an obligation to make good on them, and to do so, there would be no room for meaningless BS.
Of course, with a solid first full-length, an endorsement from Jacob Bannon, and years of touring under their belts, they weren't exactly in a bad spot to make such a claim. (Not to mention the fact that said tours included a bill with Gaza and Full of Hell - if nothing else, these former Kids have some damn fine role models.) But empty words are just that without something to back them up, so how exactly does the end result hold up to the light?
The answer: not too badly at all. It's not exactly the world-destroying behemoth the band wanted it to be, but it sure as hell sounds like it'll bite your head off and spit it out. While the pieces of the album that the band describes as "antisocial" and "weird" provide interesting and colorful strokes, most of these songs paint with the kind of dark shades of grey portrayed on the album cover. That is to say, they're heavy. Which is to say, that's an understatement. It's safe to say that a good two-thirds of this record is dedicated to sounds that are nearly guaranteed to induce some sort of physical reaction inside of you - in the very best sense of the word, this is unadulterated mosh fodder.
Several people have dubbed this album metalcore, pointing to the influences it wears on its sleeve. This is certainly fair, but one of this record's greatest achievements is how it manages to take the best cues from the subgenre while stripping it of the pretentious electronic frippery that plagues modern groups like Memphis May Fire. Rather than looking to those kinds of bands, Code Orange instead turn back a page or two, reaching back into metalcore as it was in the late 1990s and early 2000s in order to resurrect its goldmine of songwriting spirit. And indeed, they reach far beyond just metalcore. "Unclean Spirit", for example, hearkens back to Disembodied before turning on a dime, shifting its gaze towards bands like Death and Suffocation before jumping right back into the hardcore; the result sounds something like Pageninetynine on a heavy dose of speed. The title track goes a step further, melding Melvins riffage with the ballistic energy of The Dillinger Escape Plan (hell, tell me that 17/8 section before the beatdown wouldn't fit like a glove somewhere inside "Miss Machine"). And despite their attempts to disown the comparisons to Norma Jean, there are undeniable shades of that band's first two records thrown all over songs like "My World" and closer "Mercy"; I, for one, do not consider this a bad thing in the least. Above all, while Code Orange may wave these influences proudly, they succeed more often than not in assimilating these older sounds into their own stylistic language rather than simply emulating them for nostalgia's sake. And even where they don't succeed, they still slay. I must admit, it's pretty refreshing to hear a piece of metalcore that forsakes the disturbing current trend of over-production.
Most impressive, however, is "Dreams in Inertia", a towering tribute to shoegaze and hardcore that ends up blending the two into an unrecognizable new monster. Filtering slow-moving guitar lines and near-whispered vocals through the same chamber of echoes that characterized much of Ride and MBV's oeuvre, Code Orange show great strides of maturity in exercising the kind of restraint that made those bands so great to begin with, separating themselves from the thousands of lo-fi bedroom projects that a certain Mr. Fantano compared them to. Each section of the song - even the "slam" section towards the end - is remarkable both in its lack of fat and its undeniable muscle.
While the band certainly deserves praise for these achievements, they are certainly not the only ones due some props for this effort. In no small sense, Kurt Ballou lends this record a good deal of intensity, putting forth his best production effort yet. For starters, the recordings here are absolutely impeccable - each and every choice made, from the microphones to the spaces in which the takes were recorded, seems like a step in precisely the right direction. The mixing and mastering job, too, serves to highlight the strengths of each player's instrument, tone, and style while achieving a perfect balance of tones through minute volume tweaks and subtle applications of reverb. (Perfect example: witness the crystal-clarity of the china cymbal when "Slowburn" breaks down. To the average listener, it sounds cool; to a pair of trained ears, it's mind-blowing.) In the end, the brickwalling and over-compression that plagues most modern metal records is avoided entirely, and the final package still manages to sound as crushing as it was intended to be. In this day and age, that is truly a commendable achievement, and with this record, Ballou has exhibited total mastery of the soundboard and deserves to be recognized as hardcore's foremost producer.
This is, however, not a perfect endeavor. For all of the great ideas on display in the songwriting, the result can often sound like Code Orange is throwing every style and format at the proverbial wall to see what will stick. While it may be exhilarating and fresh at first, the all-in approach exhibited on most of these songs inexorably leads to several of these songs being indistinguishable from each other. As some have noted, this is because most of the album's cuts exhibit the same two tropes - loud and often hectic beginnings, and slow beatdowns complete with chugging and synchronized kicks. Whatever nuances may exist inside these parameters cease to matter by the end of a full listen to the album, because by then, it's difficult not to be tired of hearing the same bag of styles in the same key after half an hour. While this isn't to say that songs like "Thinners of the Herd" and "Bind You" don't have their own strengths, those merits don't read as such after the overload of the previous eight tracks. Simply put, Code Orange still have a ways to go before they can restrain their tendencies enough to deliver on their promise to break down the boundaries of hardcore. To invoke the obvious and tired cliche, they may not be kids, but they're not quite done growing up.
These quips aside, if all the resurrection and reshaping of classic metalcore and shoegaze present on the album is Code Orange's idea of "out with the old, in with the new", the new is certainly not a bad thing to be on board with. They may have dropped the "Kids" from their name, but the most exciting thing to keep in mind is that this band is still pretty green: their average age is 20, and this is only their second time around the block. If this is where they stand now, who knows where they'll be in five years? Perhaps they set expectations a bit high for themselves with their campaign promises of war-making and boundary-shattering, but they've still created a record that's often engaging, always merciless, and ultimately vital. They've come of age, and successfully proved that they are nothing to sleep on.
Favorites: Dreams in Inertia, Alone in a Room, Your Body is Ready...
Least Favorites: Starve, Bind You
For this record, Code Orange was:
Reba Meyers - guitars, vocals
Eric Balderose - guitars, vocals
Joe Goldman - bass
Jami Morgan - drums, vocals