code orange are challenging everything you think you know about heavy music
Leading a “new reality” of metal and hardcore, the Pittsburgh crew’s Reba Meyers discusses her upbringing in heavy music, and its place in popular culture.
The phrase ‘heavy metal’ is usually enough to turn noses skyward. A catch-all term for musical aggression and audible extremity since its inception in the late 60s, it’s been a genre for the misfits ever since, widely derided and critically ignored as it skulks about on the fringes of popular discourse. While some might revel in that outsider art status, Pittsburgh five-piece Code Orange have no time for such boundaries.
A hulking mass of jarring electronics and bones-in-a-blender riffing, Code Orange’s third album forever quickly established itself as one of the year’s most essential listens upon its January release. Swathed in darkness, it’s a grisly listen, harbouring the same captivating, scruff-of-the-neck feeling of fear that truly great horror films thrive upon. Where other heavy groups might seek to hit as hard as possible with their breakdowns and throat-shredding screams, reliant on brawn to make an impact, Code Orange take a different tack, crawling in your ear like a parasite, to a patchwork soundtrack of Nine Inch Nails-esque industrial clatters, atmospheric alt-rock and banshee howls. “It’s a different sort of dark,” states guitarist (and one of the band’s rotating cast of vocalists) Reba Meyers.
Speaking on a rare off-day ahead of an appearance at Slipknot and Ozzy Osbourne’s joint Ozzfest Meets Knotfest festival, Reba explains that those varying shades of blackness are essential to Code Orange’s makeup. “You have to create a whole experience,” she offers. “There’s so much music out there -- if you’re just offering heavy metal songs, it’s not gonna reach people in the same way that it did when metal first came out. People have done that. We have all of our electronics, and we have all of our clean songs, and we have all of these different feelings in this dark world that we try to show people. All the different spectrums of Code Orange. That’s what sets us apart, I think, from other, regular run-of-the-mill bands.”
One listen to forever or its predecessor, 2014’s i am king, is enough to suck you into that dark world. Ring-led by drummer and lead vocalist Jami Morgan, and completed by bassist Joe Goldman, guitarist Dominic Landolina and multi-instrumentalist Eric ‘Shade’ Balderose, Code Orange’s dedication to annihilation as an artform informs their every move, from the heavily stylised artwork and videos that accompany each release, to their “Thinners Of The Herd” ethos -- an aggressive slogan that outlines their collective desire to whittle down the half-arsed, fame-chasing pretenders in punk and hardcore. The ‘T.O.T.H.’ tattoos carved into each of their bodies are a permanent marker of the uncompromised vision at the heart of what Code Orange do.
It’s an approach that’s reaped rewards usually far outside of the reach of any band this heavy. This summer, Code Orange appeared on both Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, debuting the Reznor-esque the mud , and WWE’s NXT Takeover, performing bruising grunge single bleeding in the blur to a worldwide televised audience in the hundreds of thousands. As 2018 approaches, they now have a Grammy nomination in their back pocket. “It’s really cool, because those things are not in the typical trajectory of a band like ours,” Reba says, palpable pride in her voice. “It was unexpected for people, and I think people showed us a lot of respect for being able to go out of our typical ‘hardcore band’ box, and reach out further and do things like that.”
Embarking on a European stadium tour alongside cross-cultural behemoths System Of A Down, Code Orange quickly found themselves a world away from the sweatfest floor shows of the local hardcore scene which raised them. Hurling themselves around stages more than ten times the size of what they’re used to, these early 20s punk kids found themselves playing to entire generations -- from young children at their first ever gig, to folded-armed, skeptical parents. “We figured we’d get booed,” she laughs, “but we didn’t, so that was an accomplishment in itself.”
Those European stadiums weren’t the only stages bearing Code Orange’s name this summer though -- this year’s Radio 1 Big Weekend saw alt-J frontman Joe Newman bring metal to the masses, sporting a Code Orange t-shirt. It’s a seemingly innocuous gesture which led into one of the year’s music surprising collaborations, with Code Orange’s Shade subsequently taking it upon himself to remix two alt-J tracks from recent LP Relaxer. Twisting their weirdo-pop into a mangled new form, it’s a doomy take on the Breezeblocks group inspired by Shade’s childhood obsession with John Carpenter’s horror movie soundtracks, and yet further evidence of Code Orange’s approach upon the mainstream.
“It’s cool to have weird collaborations like that going on in music,” Reba enthuses. “I really think there should be more of that, especially in metal -- it just doesn’t happen enough. Connect the worlds a little bit.”
It’s that refusal to stay in lane that makes Code Orange such an important prospect. Fusing artistry and aggression in a way not seen since Slipknot’s breakthrough, they’re kicking down the barriers imposed on heavy music in a similar way to those masked metallers’ first moves. “For a long time, the outcasts of society were what made metal, so metal people didn’t want to be a part of anything else -- and the same vice versa,” Reba admits. “We recently got sent something on a Christian Facebook group that was calling us out as satanic, and saying we should go to jail because we’re a satanic band or whatever -- stuff like that probably used to happen all the time!” she says with a laugh. “I get why [metal] bands originally were the outcasts… but now it’s a different time. We want to bring people into this kind of music who aren’t usually exposed to it,” Reba admits, enthusiastic about the positive impact hardcore has had on her life.
In a world where anger is so often discredited as childlike or untoward, Code Orange are proof that it can be harnessed in stunning fashion. Absorbing and all-encompassing in the way only critical darling indie bands are ever usually credited with, there’s no telling what might end up in the crosshairs of these five Pittsburgh punks next.
Code Orange are on tour throughout the US now.