Code Orange’s ‘I Am King’ as an Anger Coping Mechanism

How the Pittsburgh hardcore band's 2014 release got me to confront my aggression.

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Jun 1 2015, 9:00am

“We are Code Orange. Welcome to 2015.”

Dissonant guitars slowly swelled the inner walls of the Music Hall of Williamsburg, as Code Orange, a Pittsburgh-based hardcore band, began to perform “My World" on a recent Friday night. The dissonance crescendoed and took its effect on everyone in attendance. Some jumped in place; some stomped and swung in the middle of the floor; some, like myself, stared at the front of the stage, transfixed on this primitive and unrestrained display of anger, chaos, and unpredictability.

For a moment I was overwhelmed. I barely acknowledged the flying fists and kicks that surrounded me, the air of the attacks leaving a brief cool before succumbing to the heat of pissed-off and sweaty bodies packed underneath one roof. The drums joined the guitars. The bodies crashed into one another. A fist finally found my face, and I fell to the ground.

I first found Code Orange late last year, after seeing my cousin post a song from their then upcoming second album, I Am King. The song, the album’s title track, was fucking flames. It had a fast and relentless intensity, as well as one of the best breakdowns I had heard from a contemporary hardcore punk band in years. I bought the album right when it came out, but for some reason, I never gave I Am King a listen until February of this year. Music might be, to our ears, objectively good, but there’s a difference between recognizing music is good and finding it viscerally appealing.

Sometimes, to truly feel or get an album, we need to be in a certain place. A place of anger. A place of happiness. A place of sadness. Music is used to enhance or escape those places, to accompany us on the good, bad and in between times of our lives. Our own subjective experience with any form of art is important because it’s only for us.

I Am King is an angry album. There’s droning dissonance at all times, screeching guitars sacrificing themselves to guttural screams and pummeling drums. The record’s 11 tracks beat listeners to a bloody and bruised pulp. Code Orange’s brand of music is merciless, unsettling, and wild.

Maybe that’s why I was hesitant, maybe even scared, to listen to I Am King so immediately. I was angry: The end of a long-term relationship, as well as unsuccessfully applying to different jobs daily, left me depressed and doubting myself. But I ignored these feelings and tried to overcome them through meditation, inspirational books and quotes, and pretending to be happy. The truth was that I was afraid to acknowledge and confront my anger because I knew I wasn’t prepared for the hurt that would bring.

Inevitably, the anger worsened. I was constantly anxious and frustrated, trying to control it and not pop off on people or myself for no reason. I slept most of my days away, thinking to myself "I'll be better tomorrow," denying my anger and not allowing myself to make the first steps towards self healing.

And, almost serendipitously, as I was cleaning my grandma’s living room, wondering if I would ever overcome these feelings, Code Orange’s “Dreams In Inertia” began to play.

I stood in silence, slowly raised the volume of the song, put it on loop, and continued cleaning. Sometimes I stomped or screamed “I can’t feel it anymore,” the words becoming more and more therapeutic with each listen. On my last listen of the song that day, I ended up crying, lying on my grandma’s living room floor, “Dreams In Inertia” having tapped something in me that made me feel weirdly better.

“Dreams In Inertia” followed me everywhere I went: the gym, the grocery store, to a friend’s place, everywhere. I even meditated to the song, its chorus “Lay your head down / Stay at rest / Never let me down again,” becoming a daily mantra. Even now I wonder how a song could be so lyrically and sonically numb yet bring me happiness and peace. “Dreams In Inertia” feels numb: The lyrics, spoken in a hushed whisper, come across as defeated, exhausted, and troubled. The music maintains a certain calm until the chorus and the ending, when the guitars and drums offer their final blows before succumbing to silence.

This is why I fuck with “Dreams In Inertia” so much. The song’s lasting moments feel so empowering and triumphant in all of its air of defeat, which was something I totally gravitated towards. I could feel myself recovering, slowly but surely, and accepting that once I overcame this defeat, this lowness, this numbness, I would be better than before.

After listening to only "Dreams In Inertia" for several days straight, I finally listened to all of I Am King, and realized that the album, in all of its aggression, frustration, and uneasiness, is about power. This is apparent from the title track in which Code Orange, dissatisfied by a "world of servants and liars and spies," proudly declares "I am king." The intensity of the three words grow and grow, and the band's collective screaming is similar to a drill sergeant, simultaneously encouraging and intimidating. But the road to discovering one's inner king takes time and isn't pretty, which is why I Am King is so good.

The album is unapologetically real. There are moments of isolation ("Alone In A Room") and helplessness ("Starve"), each song a grueling step closer to achieving some sense of peace. "I've seen the things I have to see to become the man I need to be," screams guitarist and vocalist Eric Balderose on the album's last track, "Mercy." "I am finally alive."

I Am King is the soundtrack to crawling out of a hole, beaten badly but alive and prepared to take on the world again. I needed something angry that reflected my state of mind, both lyrically and sonically. Something that forced me to confront my emotions equally and responsibly, especially the ones that scared me. Code Orange was that something for me, a band that reminded me of my time as a hardcore punk obsessed teenager, reconnecting me with a genre that always made me feel free.

As drummer Jami Morgan stated in an interview for Toxicbreed's Funhouse late last year: "[I Am King] is generally about getting rid of the things inside of yourself and the people around you that try to stifle you from doing what it is you want to do. Becoming king of your own mind and own world and taking hold of it."

Getting knocked on my ass during Code Orange's set was the fitting complement to when I first heard "Dreams In Inertia." I was struck, surprised that this song made me feel something for the first time in awhile. Live, that feeling only intensified.

Once Code Orange went into "Dreams In Inertia" I was in a trance. I stomped ferociously, screaming the song's chorus until my throat tightened. Others, including the band members, were doing the same. I forgot about the feeling of camaraderie being in a circle pit can bring, seeing people losing themselves in the music, wondering what troubles they're currently battling.

I entered the show wanting to leave a part of myself there that dragged me down and made me feel useless. As I released my anger alongside other fans and the band, I felt more alive and powerful. My catharsis came full circle: From my grandma’s living room to the Music Hall of Williamsburg, Code Orange’s performance meant so much to me. I smiled as I returned to my friend’s apartment, my adrenaline slowly disappearing and my back, chest, and legs ached in pain. I had finally acknowledged and confronted my anger, and although I knew my road to self-healing was barely beginning, I was finally prepared to take that first step, to quote Morgan, to becoming king of my own mind and world.

Elijah Watson is on Twitter - @ElijahCWatson