Codeine was a short-lived band in the early 90’s that pioneered slowcore, a movement that was characterised with music that was very slow, simple and painfully injected with emotion. On a larger scale Codeine managed to bridge the naïveté that bands like Galaxie 500 and The Velvet Underground championed with the nihilistic distortion that Nirvana dragged into the 90’s: this would later have a huge influence on post-rock bands such as Mogwai and Godspeed You Black Emperor!
Frigid Stars was Codeine’s debut album released in 1990, and is its most accessible. The most obvious reaction one gets on first listen is how depressing it is. You can feel the sadness dripping off the walls (slowcore was also unsurprisingly known as sadcore), and indeed this sense of claustrophobia pervades throughout. For example the song “New Year’s” describes a man’s abandonment as he sighs “Here in my castle, lines creep my face”. However, the kick that makes you want more are the songs’ release from very quiet to very loud. “Cave-In” is one of the album’s strongest songs because it represents the singer Stephen Immerwahr at his most unstable and most cathartic. He mumbles the album’s darkest lyrics “Last night I dreamt your face/ The skin was falling off/ The flesh was turning grey” before the crushing chorus of “This is a cave-in”, which enhances this claustrophobia to panic mode. And you realise that the euphoria comes not from a man who is moved to action, but from a man riding this wave that he knows eventually will crash.
It is useful to set Codeine against Nirvana, since slowcore is often associated with being a reaction to grunge. Both utilise the ominous quiet to complement the loud release. For example in Nirvana’s song “Lithium”, Kurt Cobain managed to find an anarchic playfulness in their lyrics and buoyant riffs, and thus forged a sense of empowerment. Yet with Codeine’s songs the singer could not find this escapism and so you discover these doomed speakers in banal scenes such as at a cigarette machine, or in dying relationships, and they are frustrated that they can’t leave this scene. Indeed we hear no hero in these songs. Immerwahr’s voice cannot replicate the growl of Cobain, and instead sounds like a perverted Woody Allen. Instead this feeling of entrapment lingers after listening, of a man who can only pull at his chains, relish the rush but also anticipate the inevitable decline.
And as depressing as this sounds, surely that is the aim of listening music? To translate a singer’s sound into a concrete feeling. And Frigid Stars finally achieves the sought after solace by making such unique bleakness into a universal feeling that can be shared, and thus consoled.