Mixed Media Slang: Orange 9mm – Tragic (1996)

Everyone has a band like Orange 9mm – a band they tipped for greatness, a band that they can’t quite believe the world never cottoned onto. Sometimes it’s just a matter of being in the right place at the right time, and perhaps the band arrived slightly too early. The fact that Orange 9mm(or Orange 9) were never huge is probably somewhat understandable — their frenetic, all-action, bass driven style certainly wasn’t for the knuckle dragging MTV crowd. But still, in an age when molesting a low volume oscillator is reason enough for becoming genuinely famous, it’s a shame that Orange 9mm went their separate ways before they ever really fulfilled the potential that they showed on their 1996 release, the ironically titled Tragic.

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Formed in 1994 by ex Burn singer Chaka Malik and bass/guitarist Chris Traynor – the duo was joined by a handful of different musicians over the span of the band. Settling on the name Orange 9mm, Malik states “the music has an edge to it, and thats something that guns have…And orange, it takes something destructive, and turns it into a cartoonish kind of thing. Cartoons have a lot of hidden meaning”. Starting off as an pure Eastcoast hardcore group their 1995 major label release Driver Not Included onEast West Records saw their sound expand with punishing rhythms and flashes of funk and metal. Whilst more band member changes between Driver Not Included and Tragic affected the groups overall sound – it was an instrument change from band member Traynor that had the biggest impact on the Orange 9mm audio.

For the Tragic recording sessions, Traynor made the fateful decision of switching from guitar to bass and in turn totally changed the Orange 9mm dynamic. Traynor noted “ I love playing bass and I feel free and I have a good vocabulary on it so that’s why I switched. When Davide (bass player on Driver Not Included) left, I just felt like, Well, I’ll record the bass and it’ll be closer to what the original intention was and we’ll find a bass player later”. As a result, this minimalistic approach is the backbone of every track on Tragic – allowing ample room for Traynor (and the band) to focus fundamentally on the the low end – which the band often described as “the seasick groove”. The guitar plays second fiddle throughout the release and is basically playing along to boost high end frequencies. Not trying to pummel his drumkit on this album, Matthew Cross’s percussion complimented Traynor’s bass rumbles with a simple beat-focused style.

The instrumental musical chairs was completed with Taylor McLam, who played drums in Traynor’s previous band Fountainhead joining the band as the permanent bass player. On arrival McLam offered up one of his original compositions, ‘Failure’ – which went on to be Tragic’s, and arguably, the bands biggest hit.  With such a heavy emphasis on the low end rhythms during the recording, it gives the album a very curious sound –  a real homogeny to the overall audio of the album, but if you are expecting clean, tight production, you’re going to be disappointed – Tragic is loose and unhygienic – it is something old…and dirrty.

With the recording taking place in New York City, the band enlisted with Brooklyn born Barkmarket beast Dave Shardy to work the boards.  Bombarded by sounds that were formerly incongruous elements— hardcore, funk, metal and underground hip-hop, Sardy took  the initiative to utilize Orange 9mm’s intended demo tracks as the actual bed-track foundations for the record itself.  Short but sweet interlude tracks ‘Stick Shift’ and ‘Crowd Control’ showcase this straight off the studio floor sound and easy outshine the more polished tracks (‘Dead in the Water’ and the albums lowpoint ‘Muted’) that follow them. Looking back on this unothadox approach, Malik notes “we got up early and just started playing. The whole time, Dave Sardy kept saying, ‘OK, we’re making records here.’ We didn’t go back and listen to a thing. We went with first takes and kept rolling”. While this off the cuff style  sounds ugly,  it makes for a dynamic sound with Traynor’s  low-tuned bass remaining the  snarling constant centerpiece in every song.

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Like a strong pulse, the bass is the life force to all that is awesome on Tragic. Tracks like  ‘Seven’ and ‘Method’  literally drip with the gooey low end spunk that would burrake any current  brostep artist. The vinegar stroke of this audio orgasm is found in the mathematics behind the structure of the music. In refection, Traynor points out that “there’s a lot of odd time signatures and the tunings are different and modified; the chord voicings are different. I wasn’t intentionally going for that but I do think it was fairly progressive especially for the time”. With Cross’s beating adding to this circlejerk of synergy, it allowes tracks like “Take you away” and the country twanged swansong ‘Kiss it Goodbye’ to really cut through with identifiable riffs and melodies. Not only was the band musically clicking on all cylinders, but frontman Chaka Malik really steps up his game as a vocalist as well.

To toe the line of the grimey unconventional music, Sardy coats Malik’s vocals in subtle levels of distortion – giving him a almost megaphone effect. Chaka makes the most of Sardy’s vocal tweaks, ranging from being lyrically minimalistic to overblown dictator-istic over the rioters rhythm section. Hailing from the Woodside Projects in Queens, the frontman’s lyrical perspective has the empire state in mind.”What motivates me is the insanity of my environment,” states Chaka. Tracks such as ‘Failure’ highlight his negative mindset  as he spits “I bet a dime that you never realize, there went your life now you want to be surprised so, so does it get to you?”. With the ideology of wasted life being a recurring theme throughout Tragic,  Chaka again points to his upbringing   ”Seeing beautiful women strung out on drugs along 8th Avenue. Porno. Shit like that affects me”. Malik sounds much more seasoned on the album, “Why do you think you can stay alive?, A lot of people can’t stand you, I refuse to be the crucified, Left to burn and turn to ash” from Method reflects the somber but defiant lyrical dexterity that flow through the majority of the songs. But even with a product as potent as Tragic, external and internal forces made sure that the bands impact would be watered down significantly by the time they hit the streets to capitalize on their hard work.

Always a victim at the hands of father time, record company pressure on the eve of Tragic’s release resulted in the groups deathblow – Traynor leaving the band.  “I was really disappointed in the way Orange 9 was perceived and what was going on” reflects Traynor. “The label (Atlantic Records)kept playing us the Red Hot Chili Peppers and they were trying to make us sound like [them]. Other people in the band see these record label executives who had money…and would say, well these guys must know what they’re talking about. But I just knew in my heart that it was wrong” and with that, Traynor exited the group two weeks prior to the first tour to promote Tragic, joining New York band Helmet as a second guitarist. This forced the band to  recruit former Supertouch bassist Chris Vitali to take over on bass, and McLam following the steps of Traynor, shifting from bass to guitar.

Still not content with Orange 9mm’s willingness to jump the shark, Atlantic Records were quick to drop the band from the label after the Tragic tour cycle. Speaking diplomatically, Malik states “we [the band and Atlantic] missed each other at a turn. There was a tour support situation that came up and that threw kind of a wedge between us and the label”. Not fitting neatly into an established commercial niche became the groups acheles heel, drifting from label to label and by the time of their third full-length, 1999’s Pretend I’m Human ( released on Ng Records), the music had become so watered down it left the listeners with soggy ears.

Orange 9mm remain a band whose charms are appreciated by a select group of fans but have largely evaded the rest of the world. Despite praise from bands and critics alike, the release somehow failed to make a lasting legacy. As one of the strongest relics of the nu metal era, Tragic is a chronically underrated and forgotten record lost in time, a fact which in itself is quite..tragic.

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