As far as debut records go, Pittsburgh’s Code Orange — formerly known as Code Orange Kids — made an immediate name for themselves with the release of 2012’s Love Is Love//Return to Dust. A heavy, dense product of the American metalcore underground, it was a powerful, abrasive musical statement that punched listeners square in the mouth. Still, the line for angry, abrasive hardcore bands is long and forms around the block to the left. They might know their way around the genre, but they’re by no means the first, and they certainly won’t be the last.
But while much of the record’s strength owed to its testosterone and tenacity, it was a small detour buried near the end of Love Is Love//Return to Dust that left the most lingering impression, even if it wasn’t necessarily the biggest. After eight bruising tracks of thunderous hardcore on a merciless mission to strong-arm listeners into saying uncle, “Calm//Breathe” was a two-and-a-half-minute breather better fit for the airiest part of your favorite Yo La Tengo record.
Where and how those two seemingly conflicting ideologies intersect was anyone’s guess, but it wasn’t hard to see that that was an avenue the band would be smart to explore further. Two years later, we’re getting a better glimpse of a band that isn’t totally sold on tying itself completely to its hardcore and metal roots. I Am King, the band’s sophomore effort, puts those experimental musical trysts to broader use. It might not be a total break from form, as these hell-raisers are still plenty indebted to Refused, Converge, and other monolithic guitar bands that make up their DNA — it’s little surprise that Converge’s Kurt Ballou once again manned the boards as the record’s producer. But I Am King still is undoubtedly the work of a band looking to spread its wings, if only just a little bit.
Whether or not the band was deliberately trying to send some sort of message by striking “Kids” from its moniker, in retrospect it was a wise move. Forget for a minute that the band’s members barely graze the median age of 20. I Am King is not the work of a bunch of kids trying to flex some undeveloped macho muscle. Code Orange strikes again with another chiseled, concrete slab of tar-thick guitars, bottom-heavy bass, thunderous drums, and unintelligible but effective vocals extracted from the gut. The lead title track, prefaced by sporadic wails of distortion that alarmingly cut in and out, sets the table appropriately for a record defined largely by its volume and power. Whether they’re channeling the uncontrollable fury of The Locust on the feverishly intense “Your Body Is Ready…” or slowing things down to a Melvins-like sludge rock crawl on “Slowburn”, the band lets its flair for tonal aggression do much of the heavy lifting.
If they were to leave it at that, I Am King would be just another hunk of charred metalcore meat to throw to the wolves. Instead, the record is colored with splashes of other musical flavors throughout. How very non-hardcore of them, yeah? Sure, but maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised. Hell, the band came right out and told us a few years back that they had broader musical ambitions that extended beyond the confines of the pit. They spoke about their love of indie rock, post-punk, and shoegaze. They gushed about bands like the Smiths and Lush. That said, this album’s biggest accomplishment is how it starts to make good sense of the two halves of the band’s split personality. “Dreams in Inertia”, for one, calms things down to let some eerie ambiance waft through the air, while it’s almost jarring to actually make out guitarist Eric Balderose’s speak-sing vocals. “Starve” makes perhaps the best use of experimental and hardcore tendencies, splitting the difference somewhere pretty close to down the middle.
Still, this isn’t a Smiths hardcore record. Guttural metalcore still reigns loudly over any dreamy, indie rock ambitions that Code Orange entertain on I Am King. But they’re trying, and in a genre that adheres so closely to formula like hardcore, metal, and the spaces in between, that in and of itself means something. There’s a rewarding quality to stumbling across a band that at least has the ambition to move beyond convention, even if the results don’t always strike an even keel. In the end, indie and metalcore might not make perfect bedfellows, but Code Orange make an interesting case that they can still get together and jam over a case of PBR.
Essential Tracks: “Dreams in Inertia”, “Slowburn”