Review Summary: !!!WEIRD HODGEPODGE ALERT!!!
Phew, thank god you came. Let me bring you up to speed on the situation.
Welcome, one and all, to industrial rock + nu-metal revivalism + metallic hardcore of mildly post(al) inclinations aka The Above
: a maximalist medley of preposterously THICC proportions that slots itself rather neatly into the anything goes
absurdity of popular HEAVY music in 2023. All that the Pittsburgh 5-piece’s fifth outing shoots for screams (a) I’M DIFFERENT!!! and (b) I’M BIG!!!, whether in the Hybrid Theory
homage of “Take Shape”, hefty orchestral ballads a la “Mirror”, grunge-y singalongs (“Circle Through”), Marilyn Manson monoliths (“The Mask Of Sanity Slips”) and/or frill-free beatdowns (“The Game”). That these disparate elements share the stage is not itself surprising - bitch this is the year of Life Is But a Dream…
and Take Me Back To Eden
, keep up - but that they each distill to the surface with such clarity, distinct blocky and sparkling, was not quite what I expected from the kings of discordance themselves. The band’s historic preference for jump cuts and deliberately dizzying+disjointed songcraft have been jettisoned, their staple murk replaced with a clean shaven bundle of neatly packaged hell-nuggets.
If I sound at all skeptical, there’s a reason. Loud Band Faux-Innovates By Repurposing Unfashionable Sounds From Nineties Absent Meaningful Twist
isn’t exactly the most enticing headline, and while perhaps not an unexpected direction of travel - given it was at the very least signposted on 2020’s contentious-but-actually-quite-good Underneath
- the specific pairing of genres chosen here, and the pristine presentation thereof, does still raise eyebrows. Sure, the inviting melodic hooks and glistening Soundgarden
cleans aren't inherently bad, nor incompatible with the girthy riffage and pensive atmospherics frequently sought after, but there is a compromise inherent in that design, like signing up to a cage fight on the condition that all participants are cocooned in bubble wrap. ‘Counterproductive’ is a word; so is ‘diluted’.
It's because of this conflict that “I Fly” chokes on its own bile, the cartoonish catharsis of its alt rock core doing much to undo the genuinely gritty atmosphere of “A Drone Opting Out Of The Hive”, kneecapping the glitchy headrush it provides beforehand. It’s also why the major-key chorus and throbbing power chords of “Splinter The Soul” feel quite so off
, undercutting the jagged edges and ballistic fury of the songs to follow (“Grooming My Replacement” literal best Code Orange song ever?!). Rather than culminating satisfactorily, the proprietary blend tastes imbalanced, individual elements engulfing one another, snake devouring snake.
It wasn’t a problem I noticed, at least not to the same degree, on the band's aforementioned 2020 outing. Despite The Above
’s sister LP being far more chaotic in its amalgamations of the same sounds and styles, forcibly splicing them together as opposed to the gentle mixing seen here, it nonetheless solidified into a more unique and charismatic whole as a result, the band having excavated points of commonality between sources of inspiration and married them up with success. It was careful, not clumsy, not simply copy-pasting disconnected genre tropes, unedited, without mediation, and hoping that seawater and crude oil might actually be a complementary pairing. This bare regurgitation of conflicting sounds is what hurts The Above
the most, presenting as a (not so) greatest hits compilation from purgatory. It feels cobbled together, without care for global coherence nor the refined execution of any one sound, instead counting on the excitement of variety and disjunction to make up for its less considered, less interesting content. IT WAS INTENTIONAL!!!, plead the marketing materials, and I believe them, but self-awareness and absolution are, I’m told, sold separately.
Juggling more balls than you have hands isn't always a good idea. Weirdo mishmashes have their place - The Armed
certainly seem to know where the secret sauce is hidden, notwithstanding their 2023 oopsie
- AND, fundamentally, I’m pleased to see that well-established acts like Code Orange are still willing to be dumb, take liberties, and try something different. It is, however, telling
that the best grind album of the year was just released by a band that specifically chose not
to innovate. Pick a strong suit, play out your hand, DON'T assimilate and assimilate and assimilate just because you can, and maybe you can avoid the biggest musical pitfall of 2023.
Is there a redemption arc? Uh. Well, both The Above
’s production and pacing - long standing sources of ick
for the group - are genuinely great, as can be said of the band’s reliable bombast and goofy, unshakable confidence, which do a lot to mask just how uninspired their 90s-pop-screm whistle-stop-tour is. However, given the evident potential showcased on Underneath
, I wonder whether dialing into the most interesting wombo combo presented therein - that metalcore + industrial + bleakness ting - may have borne more fruit than the brighter///broader whole here, particularly if their goal is truly as stated: to achieve something genuinely new and filthy in the knotty metallic underground. The Above
is many things, but it just isn’t that.