Quarantining The Past: Codeine’s ‘Frigid Stars’

    Codeine wasn’t just a slowcore band: they were the slowcore band. They were the best representative for a genre than can be a pretty tough sell. If bands like Low became more well known, it’ s because those bands made slowcore beautiful, which is it’s own amazing feat. Codeine, on the other hand, weren’t about making their grind palatable, the band was about flipping rock music inside out, and nowhere is that more apparent than on their debut album, Frigid Stars.

    The band only put out three releases — Frigid Stars, the 1992 EP Barely Real, and 1994’s White Birch — and their sound evolved into something huge and slow and excellent. The players filled in the gaps as they went, got more powerful, and by White Birch played with an impressive cohesion (it didn’t hurt that, on that album, the trio added David Grubbs for texture). But Frigid Stars tells us far more about the band. It revels in the gaps, in the negative space. It glares at us with its insistent slowness, it’s dour gloom, it’s impossibly long shadows. And yet, it still manages some sort of energy. It’s an album of inversion — from the negative of a starry sky on the album’s cover on down — and though it denies us the cathartic pay-off of all this trudging, though it never bursts to life, it isn’t a zombie walk either. Frigid Stars shows just how slow you can move while still moving with purpose.

    Like the band’s sound, the record itself was slow to work its way to the ’90s rock music audience. German label Glitterhouse released the album first in August of 1990 before Sub Pop — the label that would release the rest of the band’s material — put the record out in the states in Spring 1991. It seems like no surprise, on first listen, that Codeine gained most of their notoriety later on, since its debut album is one of the most appropriately titled records. The set is both distant and cold, it’s an album you have to work your way to, not the other way around. It is you that has to come to the layers, not the textures that come to you.

    On opener “D,” singer and bassist Steven Immerwahr pines “I want you to need me,” but you figure out pretty quick he’s not talking to us, that we’re eavesdropping on something private and aching. John Engle’s spacious minor-note rolls ring out around him and Chris Brokaw’s spare drumming lets all that ache spread out darkly around Immerwahr’s restrained voice. Along with the contained “Pickup Song” that comes later, “D” is as approachable as the record gets, since the song holds together and pushes forward the way you expect a rock song to, albeit at a much slower pace. “Gravel Bed,” on the other hand, barely stays in one piece. There are as many gaps as there are sounds to frame those gaps. Immerwahr mumbles his way through, letting his bass rumble steadily under fuzzy, moody waves of guitar. “New Year’s” is spacious in a much more fragile way. The guitars are clean and rippling, the bass comes up in the mix and doesn’t rumble so much as it hums, and while the drums steady themselves, they still don’t quite get big.

    And therein lies the secret weapon of Frigid Stars: Chris Brokaw. Brokaw plays some guitar here, which he’s most known for, and he long ago proved himself as one of the great ears for texture in modern rock music with his work in Codeine (though he left before White Birch) and especially later in his other band Come (more on them next week). But what’s remarkable about Frigid Stars is how much his drumming adds to the mood. The way he stops and starts his glacial pace on “Gravel Bed,” the slight shimmer of cymbals that blurs the edges on “New Year’s,” the spare handful of  crashes you hear under the buzzing tension of mid-record mood piece “Second Chance.” He pushes “Cave-In” forward with a particularly pounding kick drum and then stops in his tracks to let the quieter tones take the lead. He gets subtly louder and louder on the record, hitting just a bit harder on “3 Angels” and so, by album’s end, when you get to the acoustic-electric hybrid drone of closer “Pea” he changes the textures by adding no drums, by sticking to the spread-out guitar tones we’d come to associate more closely with him on later projects.

    Frigid Stars may not sound as cohesive as White Birch, but that’s becuase the way Immerwahr, Engle, and Brokaw came together didn’t invite cohesion. Their’s was a sound of disparity, sometimes of dischord, and it worked awfully damn well. The layers took their time, some might say too much time, but there was an energy contained within them, in the tension between cymbal crashes, in the rippling out of shadowy chord phrasings, in the reedy sound of Immerwahr’s voice fighting through all those walls of sound. They were very much of the moment, steeped in the punky post-rock of late-’80s bands like Bitch Magnet — whose lead singer Sooyoung Park co-wrote “New Year’s” and later recorded it with his second (and great) band Seam — but they also created something timeless. There’s a reason Numero Group is reissuing all of the band’s work on the expansive When I See the Sun.

    Even if the band was a linchpin of the slowcore genre, make no mistake that the genre couldn’t wholly contain it. Codeine was off on its own slo-mo vision quest, and the strange reversed images they found, the inversions of typical beauty they flipped and made ring, they all started — and were at their strongest — on Frigid Stars.

    The When I See the Sun box set is available now.