Nightman Listens To – Code Orange – Underneath (2020 Series)!

Greetings, Glancers! Another highly rated album from 2020 to cover today, and another one I have absolutely zero knowledge of. In fact, before writing this introduction I had to check on my original 2020 post to see which publication listed this album as one of their favourites. It was Kerrang, so this must be a Metal album. At the very least an album with guitars, given that Kerrang goes after all sorts these days. That’s all I know, but maybe the artwork will tell me something.

It’s a fleshy, cyborg, alien thing? It’s a bit like if Iron Maiden’s Eddie were a nerd, but was kidnapped by a Cenobite and then placed in one of Jigsaw’s traps. It doesn’t tell me much. Is it meant to be a violent, brutal image so the album will be violent and brutal? For any new readers – I write my intro before I’ve heard a single note of the album, but by the time we jump to the next paragraph I will have listened to the whole thing multiple times. Lets get to it.

You know, that image is a fairly accurate representation of the music – it’s the sort of music a demented AI might make if the only data it had to go on was Nursery Rhymes and 2010s Hardcore Metal. On one hand it’s fairly straight screamy shouty metal – brutal vocals song by boys who are angry because mommy wouldn’t let them ‘go out with hair like that’, thunderous drumming, and crushing riffs – but on the other hand you have an album deliberately broken with audio glitches and defects. The music will cut out without warning or begin to judder and skip like a dust ridden CD, and many of riffs have been distorted to sound like they have been heavily processed through multiple rusty filters and failing laptops. It’s cool, but the effect doesn’t have the same impact on multiple listens or by the time the final track comes around. It’s probably the most notable aspect of the album and what distinguishes this from the thousands of other Hardcore albums out there, which are generally very samey. It is a cool effect, it is overdone, but at least they mix up those effects with a variety and intensity that it does catch you off guard and create a sort of unique vibe. Of course, this glitching and trickery is not exactly original – The Music’s debut way back in 2002 had plenty of these stoppy starty shenanigans – but I don’t know how regularly it has been used in Metal. I wonder if these guys are fans of The Music – there’s a moment in Autumn And Carbine which is suspiciously reminiscent of the electro beats used in The Music’s third album. That seems highly unlikely.

I must admit to laughing and enjoying the opening track, because all the deliberately off-putting sound, screeches, and distortion is exactly the sort of ‘experimental music’ I was making more than 10 years ago. I have hundreds (literally) of ‘songs’ like this and when I have time I add the odd one to Youtube to terrify people. That intro builds nicely – I like a long instrumental intro to build anticipation and set tone and mood, but when this happens on an especially good intro I’m internally praying ‘don’t ruin it with the vocals don’t ruin it with the vocals’. In general I’m not a fan of Hardcore vocals because they crush the individuality of the voice and enforce limitations. I can take them in short bursts but this is the genre we’re in so it should be expected and evaluated as such. The album isn’t all shouts and screams – there are minor instances of clean female vocals and the songs which deftly balance the harsh with the clean, the light with the dark, such as Sulfur Surrounding are the most successful at sticking in my memory.

That’s the greatest quandary I have with this genre and the album. Hardcore, and plenty of other metal sub genres have a lack of melody and variety; little variety of emotion, little to no variety in vocal melody, and it’s all about as many downtuned basic riffs and how much shouty shouting you can shout. If you like Hardcore, you should like this. If you’re a purist though, you might be put off b the glitches, by the synth moments, by the cleaner sections because this album does strive for variety. It employs Hardcore as its foundation, but wants to build something more monstrous and remarkable. I don’t speak from any position of experience or authority but based on the rave reviews from those in the know, the band succeeded in this respect. This album does have variety – there are memorable vocal melodies (which may take time to sink in) and there is emotional variety (at least in the grey areas between annoyed, angry, and really pissed off). Songs such as The Easy Way and Sulfur Surrounding build upon this by eschewing the tried and tested and boring hardcore route of riff, shout, other shout, solo, shout end, by adding musical and structural elements not typically heard.

Still, as someone mostly unfamiliar with this sub-genre and with no real desire to learn about it or care (it’s all a bit… skinhead, you know), I could appreciate its brutality and experimentation and can gladly chill to any of the songs while driving. A few songs would be enough for me before I’d want to move on to something else – I get enough futile tantrums at home without needing it in my music too. A handful of the better blended songs I can stick on my playlist but the whole thing isn’t one I think I’ll return to. I can marvel at the production and applaud the musical ability and desire to drag the genre into new territory, but the songwriting in itself feels somewhat flat outside of the glitches.  Like many of the albums I have already reviewed from 2020 and likely those I haven’t got to yet – this isn’t for me so I’ll leave it to the people who it was designed for. I have no doubt they’ll love it.

Album Score

Sales: 3. Seems to have done okay, at least within a genre which doesn’t really sell anymore. Seems to be theit highest selling album – but we’re talking 10s of thousands here. I could go 2 here, but lets give them some props.

Chart: 2. A hardcore album isn’t really designed to sell outside its core audience or set the charts alight. It made it onto the top 200 in US. Not as high as their debut I believe, but times have changed.

Critical: 5. Go down to a 4 if you want to include non-Metal publications, but praise has been flawless across the board in Metal magazines and sites.

Originality: 3. Normally a Hardcore album is going to get a 1 or a 2 from me here. This strives for me and generally does more. Enough for a 3 at least.

Influence: 3. I would hope that this will spur other young bands within this genre and the genres less prone to experimentation and variety to take the lead. It’s not going to influence on a wider scale so I could see a 2 or even a 1 here if you’re very harsh. Definitely don’t see this as higher than 3.

Musical Ability: 3. They can play, but we’re talking Metal here. If you can’t better than almost every other genre, you’re not going to get as high as a 3. I expect each person to be an expert in their craft. The glitches are more a case of production and ideas than musical ability – outside of that I didn’t feel enough to hit a 4.

Lyrics: 3. Naturally I had to Google the lyrics to see what they’re all about. There are bits and bobs related to changing and adapting to the modern world which fits with the music. Aside from that, all the usual Metal topics stated plainly without much poetry or invention – control, violence, anger, the usual.

Melody: 2: Only a handful of songs standout in this respect – I’ve been lenient so far in some of my scoring but if you force me up to a 3 here, I can drop Lyrics to a 2. Most of the songs don’t differ in the vocal melodies aside from the few notable ones, and even those aren’t the catchiest in the world. I won’t grumble if you go 3 here but anything higher seems like bias.

Emotion: 3. Genres like this aren’t the most subtle or nuanced in terms of emotion – there’s only so much range of emotion you can convey when your vocals are at 11 the entire time. It comes down to how much importance you place on expectation – if you expect and want anger, volume, shouting, then you can mark higher. If you are looking for a more balanced range of emotions across a spread of songs, then you mark lower. I’ll go average considering the genre. 

Lastibility: 3. While time will tell whether this was a game-changer, it seems like it has made enough impact based on its reviews to sustain itself at least until their next album drops. Metal fans are devout to their group or sub genre, and those outside the group will complain or move on to the next thing. Not enough information to say for sure, but a 3 seems reasonable. 

Vocals: 3. I’m no judge on hardcore vocals and what is good versus bad versus whatever. What I do know is that I can only take so much of it, not because it’s loud or shouty, but because it’s repetitive and dull and lacks character. Some songs offer mainly clean vocals, some songs offer additional vocals, and some songs blend clean and harsh. I didn’t have any issue with the quality of any of the vocals, more that they were mostly generic. 

Coherence: 4. I’m happy going high on this category because the band seemed committed to their idea for their sound, and did everything possible to make a coherent product. The glitches and electronic (for lack of a better term) sound carries through to the end.

Mood: 3. I could agree with an argument for a 4 here as the coherence lifts the mood, but given the lack of emotion and feeling I generally get from this type of music I’m not confident that any mood the band is trying to communicate would not translate to me.

Production: 4. Another strength, everything is clear and the various components are nuanced in the way that the emotions are not. Most notable aspects being the glitches and future shock soundscapes which are handled with both taste and bluster. 

Effort: 3. I always dread scoring this category because effort is sacred and sacrosanct. It feels disingenuous to score low when artists, especially in these genres, put their heart, soul, blood, sweat, and tears into their creation. I have no doubt the band did everything they could to write, record, and produce this album – but so does every other band if they’re serious about their craft. I don’t see or I’m not aware of anything over and above what other bands do. 

Relationship: 2. When I was younger maybe I would have felt different, but even when I was younger and more accepting of most Metal subgenres such as this were at an arm’s length. I love melody, and emotion, and shades of colour. I also love being heavy and angry and skilful and fast, but there are tonnes of other albums and artists who do those things while also speaking to me on a personal level. 

Genre Relation: 3. Sure… it sounds like most other albums in this genre that I’ve heard. But it also goes further and tries more. Then again, not my area of expertise. 

Authenticity: 4. Metal artists often live or die based on how authentic they are. If your fanbase feels you’ve sold out or moved to far away from what drew them to you, they’ll bugger off and let you know. Again, I don’t know much about it but it seems authentic, committed, and they believe in what they’re doing. 

Personal: 3. I’m honestly closer to a 2 because I know I’ll never listen to it again, but I also know it’s a better album than what a 2 would suggest. This score is all about your personal feelings so you can put all of you bias into this score – if an album sells in the millions, tops the charts, gets rave reviews, but it’s Country and you hate it – give it a 5 in those other categories but give it a 1 here. This is a low 3 for me, but the belief and the novelty of the glitching is enough to stop it dropping to a 2.

Miscellaneous: 2. I could go 3 here, but there’s not enough in the artwork or the surrounding info of the album to really nail down that score. 

Total: 61/100

That’s a lower score than most I’ve reviewed so far – but remember it’s only a 7 point difference between Ungodly Hours which is an album I did enjoy much more on a personal level. It may take something special to break that 70 mark!