Several years ago when Converge played a show with Pittsburgh’s Code Orange Kids, frontman Jacob Bannon saw something of himself in the young band. Something that struck a chord deep within him. The band’s violent and confident take on metalcore, a genre that Bannon himself had a hand in birthing, was enough to seal the deal and it wasn’t long after that Bannon signed the band to his label Deathwish Inc for their scrappy debut album Love Is Love/Return to Dust. Boasting a strong, classic metalcore sensibility, the album was a fine beginning to an energetic hardcore band that was just waiting to hit it big. And though the album was a lot of fun to listen to, the ambition of its reach didn’t extend too terribly far. Very obviously raised on a diet of their new mentors Converge as well as bands like Botch and Terror, Code Orange Kids put a steel-toed-boot-clad foot forward that, while not exactly reinventing the wheel, showed that the band had potential out the wazoo as well as a degree in knowing how to really tear things up.
In the two year span since Love Is Love/Return to Dust Code Orange Kids have kept themselves pretty busy. On top of a rigorous touring schedule and putting out several EPs and splits, the band has taken a big step as far as careers go—changing their name. Sure, they have only dropped the “Kids” part of the name officially making them Code Orange from here on out, but still the alteration carries some serious weight. It’s as if the band has retreated into a self-made cocoon before the unveiling of their hotly-anticipated sophomore album I Am King. They’ve taken serious steps towards maturity, both in their overall aesthetic and their songwriting. The most obvious and probably corny way of putting it is that they aren’t Kids anymore. Go ahead and roll your eyes if you must, but in dropping the juvenile portion of their nomenclature, Code Orange has stepped into a larger arena. They are sitting at the adults’ table now, and they are more than adept at holding their own there.
I’ve always maintained that the four members of Code Orange don’t look anything at all like the ferocious music they make might suggest. With their moppy hair and baggy clothing, they look less like the typical metalheads and more like extras from a lost episode of Freaks & Geeks—and I mean that in the absolute best way possible. If nothing else, the way in which Code Orange choose to present themselves serves to tell listeners that this isn’t the typical metalcore band. Don’t let their unassuming exterior fool you though. As I Am King will show, this band with their brutal riffs, can run with even the heaviest of bands. It’s not a bait-and-switch as much as it’s a defying of expectations and the further you dig into I Am King, the more you realize that any expectations at all will do best by being left at the door.
It’s no secret that metalcore is a genre that’s in serious trouble. What was once an exciting genre on the frontlines of style hybridization has now become a cut-and-paste checklist that results in style way before substance. Thankfully though, Code Orange has re-emerged with I Am King to remind listeners that all is not lost and that metalcore can once again be exciting to listen to. Overhauling the notion of what the genre means, the band has taken everything they know, put it in a blender (with generous dollops of sludge metal, doom, grunge, and some other experimental bits), thrown the resulting mess against the wall, and then gotten their hands dirty. Smearing a visage into the thick mess, the band has turned it into a jarring mural that’s as brutal as it is forward thinking.
And with every bizarre little moment that pricks the ear, Code Orange are stretching themselves and it shows. Right off the bat, I Am King reveals itself to be a metalcore album that’s more concerned with inverting expectations than lazily meeting them. The title track opens with alternately muted and buzzing guitar tones that feel like something lifted straight from a horror movie and the shadows only gets darker from there. Like the album’s artwork, the macabre nature of I Am King is grotesque and ugly to behold, but if you can get past the shock factor that Code Orange very obviously want to project, there is a lot going on behind the scenes that would require you use your brain cells rather than headbang them away. The chaos is orderly with a strangely beautiful aesthetic that feels almost mathematical the more you listen. But to keep things from feeling too familiar, every time Code Orange begin to build something where you can see the details forming, they turn around and burn it down before you can get your fingers around. It’s a cruel game, but one that keeps listeners on their toes.
One of the biggest compliments that I can pay Code Orange is that they’ve learned how to use their natural resources—most notably Reba Meyers. Not to single her out, but she is a short spitfire who is the band’s ace in the hole, and it would be criminal to ignore her very specific contributions. On I Am King, the band takes advantage of the diversity of vocal range that she enables and utilizes it to full effect. Though not the lead vocalist, Reba lends her voice to some of the album’s more melodic moments and sets the work apart simply by doing so. Modern metalcore is a genre that flirts dangerously with gross misogyny, and while Code Orange are far from being the typical metalcore band, it’s still refreshing to see them not only stare those prejudices down, but view their female contributor as an integral part of their very unique equation.
In the last couple of weeks, I Am King has pretty much dominated my airwaves. Catchy music isn’t necessarily melodic so with that in mind, man, this is one catchy album. Despite that shell of ugliness that the album is surrounded in, it’s a compulsively listenable experience that, despite its jagged edges, goes down easily and rewards relistening… and more relistening. Music that hits with the weight of a sledgehammer rarely gets this fun and each time they bring that metal down it’s even better than the last time. It hurts so good as the saying goes, and though they’d never deliver the blows with a smile, I’d be willing to bet that Code Orange are having one hell of a good time as they do it, even if they aren’t kids anymore.
I Am King is out now via Deathwish Inc.