Of all the groups to reform in recent years, Codeine must have been one of the least likely to do so. When I first saw the announcement, I simply assumed that it must have been another band using their name. But, of course, there can only be one Codeine. The story goes that the original line-up of vocalist and bassist Stephen Immerwahr, guitarist John Engle and drummer Chris Brokaw were persuaded to reunite for some live shows by the Numero Group label, to mark the unlikely release of a colossal Codeine box set. There are no further shows planned, and no new material, which is probably just as well.
I never saw Codeine during their original incarnation in the early 90s, but I quickly fell under the spell of their two LPs, Frigid Stars and The White Birch. As a Swans fan, I detected something of Swans’ unremittingly gloomy muse and fondness for sledgehammer percussion in Codeine, although Codeine were sparser and more interested in exploring space and texture than Swans ever were. What I liked most about the records was the grinding sense of bleakness that pervaded every aspect of Codeine, from their anaesthetized name to the austerity of the White Birch cover, from Brokaw’s (and, later, Doug Scharin’s) dispassionate thud to Immerwahr’s cracked pleadings. This was music that knew it had nowhere to go, and was in absolutely no hurry to get there.
Codeine played live in Vienna three times during the 90s, and Immerwahr told the Szene audience how much they had enjoyed their previous visits. (In a further quirk, the cover of the Barely Real EP is a photo of the Upper Belvedere.) Eighteen years since the last of those, Codeine played a spellbinding set that dwelt heavily on the frozen isolation evoked by their past. Immerwahr intoned spare, haunting texts in a hesitant voice laced with caution, mixed low down to blend in lugubrious harmony with Engle’s stark strumming. Brokaw’s percussion, meanwhile, dictated the funereal pace at which the concert unfolded.
Brokaw, Engle and Immerwahr seem like genuinely nice guys, not above chatting at length to fans at the merch table both before and after the gig (this was the first time I’ve ever seen all the members of a headlining group work their own merch table, by the way) and with many a smile and a nod to each other onstage. There was the faint trace of a smile on Immerwahr’s face, too, as he introduced the evening’s final song, the tender and strangely moving “Broken-Hearted Wine”. Acknowledging that many of the foregoing songs had dealt in unutterable pain and sadness (I’m paraphrasing), he hoped that this last one would send us home with some good cheer in our hearts. Since the song in question went “you can come on over, cry on my shoulder and drink broken-hearted wine”, it could only offer a moderate amount of comfort. But by that time Codeine had given so much that it hardly seemed to matter at all.