When Codeine formed in New York City in 1989, Jane's Addiction held sway over a budding alternative nation, Sonic Youth were the coolest band in the world, grunge was bubbling up in a rising tide of festering aggression, and the American underground was still intimately entwined with hardcore. There were pockets of resistance on the fringes —Bastro, Slint, Bitch Magnet— but none were quite as radical as Codeine, who effectively forged an entire new sound in isolation.
The sound would, in time, be known as slowcore, and, decades later, Codeine's debut album, Frigid Stars, still stands as the genre's landmark entry; a foundation stone on which all else was built. First issued by Glitterhouse, in Europe, in 1990, the record was released on Sub Pop, in the US, in 1991 (AKA: The Year Punk Broke). And, that proximity meant Codeine caught some of the glaring spotlight of the grunge explosion, but their music was in opposition to the predominant sound of the day.
Though they marshaled the quiet-to-loud shifts so prevalent in the day, Codeine played incredibly slow, sad, sincere music that dwelled in the depths of depression (it no surprise that, in the mid-'90s, Codeine were recruited for a Joy Division tribute record). Radically razing away rock'n'roll's bluster and bombast, the trio —bassist/vocalist Stephen Immerwahr, guitarist John Engle, drummer Chris Brokaw— leaving something barely even passing for bare bones. In an era of audience ready to mosh, the snail's pace Codeine played at was a provocation; a punk gesture that confounded conventions and challenged preconceptions. They still rocked, as it were; Engle playing lacerating sheets of oft-atonal guitar, the quiet/loud shifts creating high-wire tension/release, and the crescendoes hitting ear-splitting volumes. But, boy, did they play slow.
Make it Sad
The great trick of slowcore was to turn the standard rock instruments —guitars, bass, drums— against the form itself. But Codeine's defining instrument was neither guitar, bass, nor drums. It was Stephen Immerwahr's astonishing voice. The band's frontman sung in a dispassionate, deadpan monotone that sounded nasally, and almost comically detached; his lack of modulation and flourish matching his plodding bassplaying, in which notes were struck with such tonal economy that the lack of flourish became a style. Immerwahr was their hearbeat; keeping Codeine's flatlining pulse beeping slowly, eternally on the edge of death.
When Immerwahr sings the opening lines of Frigid Stars' opening song, "D" —"D for effort/D for intent/D because you pay the rent"— the big D in question seems to be depression. The singer effectively glowers: "see a smile/make it sad," he solemnly intones, mid-"Cave-in"; by the closer, "Pea," he fantasizes "to be one mile high/then I would kill you all." Yet, there's a gallows humor at play in the stark sadness herein; and when Immerwahr sings near-comic things like "things don't last too long/but when they do they last too long," he still sounds like he's delivering a zen koan.
Immerwhar's lyrics read like haiku, every syllable carefully-weighted; the reductionist lyricism reflecting the bare-bones aesthetic. Frigid Stars is a monochromatic work; all open spaces and sinister shadowplay. In "Second Chance," Brokaw steps away from the drums to wield a guitar (which he did, concurrently, in Come), and he and Engle tangle up noise for five minutes; the complete abandonment of percussion, of rhythm, making the trip into atonalism sound shocking, yet playing as a perfect centerpiece.
It's a singular sound that has, over time, preserved well. Yet, Codeine has remained weirdly unloved by all but slowcore devotees. Whilst Slint's Spiderland, the artistically-comparable Frigid Stars has remained overlooked and underrated; a landmark LP missing the chorus of critical hosannas.
Record Label: Sub Pop
Release Date: August, 1990