For those who have followed Code Orange over the past few years, the most immediately noticeable thing about the band's new record — I Am King, released earlier this month — is also probably the last thing the members are interested in talking about: that is, the conspicuous absence of the word "kids" from the group's name. Some bands with age-oriented names make adjustments as time wears on (like the Young Rascals), and some don't (Youth of Today). But for Pittsburgh-based Code Orange, the name change had nothing to do with the transition from teens to twentysomethings.
"People were like, 'Oh, they're grown up,' or whatever. It didn't have anything to do with that," explains drummer and vocalist Jami Morgan. "We weren't even certain we were going to change the name until I saw the response." Everyone seemed to have an opinion on the subject, whether they were fans of the band or not. "At that point it was like, 'Well, now it's called fucking Orange,' whatever."
The "Kids" could return on the next record or it could not, but as arbitrary as Morgan might make the change out to be, it's indicative of the band members' core value: that is, continuing to do whatever they want, regardless of whether it makes sense to anyone else. "That's what it's supposed to be about," Morgan says. "We wanted to show that we would shake it up any time."
I last spoke with Jami in 2010, when he was 17. Then, Code Orange Kids — who by that point had already been together for more than three years — played shows constantly, opening locally for major acts like Municipal Waste and Nekromantix. Their post-graduation plan was to move to Philadelphia together and generally devote themselves to their music. "I hear about these bands who are offered big tours and they don't do it because someone has to work," Morgan said at the time. "I would give up anything to do that."
And then — as so rarely happens with five-year plans — things went almost exactly as anticipated. The four moved to Philly — Morgan, guitarist/singer Reba Meyers and bassist Joe Goldman enrolled in college, and guitarist Eric Balderose came along to keep the band together. A few months later, they were back in Pittsburgh (school didn't work out), but in the interim they had carved out a home in the Philly hardcore scene. Following a series of self-released EPs, they put Cycles out on Mayfly Records. The record eventually caught the attention of Deathwish Inc. (the label co-founded by hardcore elder statesman Jacob Bannon), which released the band's debut full-length, Love Is Love/Return to Dust, in 2012.
Where that first full-length was a summation of Code Orange's early recordings, I Am King was a chance to branch out. "It's very different from other stuff we've done," says Morgan, "but also very different from what a lot of other people are doing right now." While some members of the scene draw a distinct line between "arty" extreme music and what might be called (pejoratively or not) "ignorant hardcore," Morgan says, "We like both. I like music that you can just fucking mosh to. I also like weird music. We want to do both. We want to make the heaviest record of this year, and we also want to make the weirdest record of this year."
And indeed, I Am King, which debuted at No. 96 on the Billboard Top 200 and at No. 1 on the Billboard vinyl charts, is heavy and weird. It's also, judging from Morgan's personal accounts as well as general Internet chatter, fairly polarizing. "When [Deathwish co-founder Tre McCarthy] heard it, he said, 'Well, it's much better than the other record, but people are going to say its nu-metal,'" Morgan recalls. "And I was like, 'I don't fucking care what people say!'"
Code Orange has hardly abandoned its more traditional hardcore roots, but I Am King is a dense record. It draws as much from dark shoegazey bands like The Jesus and Mary Chain and the '90s alternative rock of Alice in Chains and Smashing Pumpkins as it does from '90s/early-2000s metalcore bands like Disembodied and Buried Alive. Visceral, mosh-ready breakdowns are tempered with grainy, ethereal vocals and sludgy instrumentation. And, since Morgan, Meyers and Goldman are also members of popular lo-fi outfit Adventures, it's unsurprising that shades of indie rock have ended up in the mix as well. Is it nu-metal? Well, yeah, a little. But it's been almost 20 years since Deftones released Adrenaline: In terms of eternal return, the music world might be due.
Regardless, this record — from the title onward — is an audacious move, executed with extreme confidence. Which, of course, is something that Code Orange has never lacked. "It's the only way to matter in 2014," Morgan says. "There's an idea behind [the record]; there's a vibe behind it. Yet there are going to be tons of people criticizing and shitting on it. I knew what I wanted the record to be about. I wanted the music to represent that, I wanted the title to represent that, I wanted us calling it Code Orange to represent that. We are going to do whatever we want. We're [the ones] who have been together since we were 14. We've been friends. And I trust what my friends think."