Review: Codeine @ Northcote Social Club (Melbourne)

Codeine played Northcote Social Club (Melbourne) on 13 April, 2024 - image © Daniel Bergeron
Bron is a Melbourne-based science journalist who loves to return 'home' to a band room any chance she gets. She has 25 years' experience and has worked for Rolling Stone, Blunt, The Sydney Morning Herald, JUICE and many more.

In a tour you could file under 'this will never happen', New York indie-rock slowcore pioneers Codeine made their first trip to Australia.

The Melbourne show (13 April) was exactly 30 years and 9 days since the release of their groundbreaking – and final – second album, 'The White Birch'.

This Northcote Social Club gig sold out months ago, given that the city was the slowcore heartland of Australia's music scene in the late 1990s, and perhaps may still hold the title as the trio squeezed in an all-ages matinee show earlier in the day. However, before longtime fans got to finally get their fix, they had a few treats by way of the support acts.

First up, and damn impressive, were local 'sadgaze' merchants World Sick, who instantly made their presence felt. With Codeine-esque sparse vocals and atmospherics and a fantastic, dramatic rhythm section, they were anything but copyists.

Drawing on a sound heavier than traditional indie slowcore, the four-piece built a formidable wall of sound that felt more reminiscent of Isis without the vocals and Russian Circles. If slowcore metal was a genre, World Sick feel like they're carving their own space in it.

The mood soon shifted with Sydney's A Broken Sail, who have been nailing some fantastic support slots lately that has garnered them a solid fan base, so the band room was around 70 per cent full by the time they took the stage.

A far more introspective, meandering and plaintive affair, the band hit all the right notes but, to this reviewer at least, felt a little underwhelming.

Though it was perhaps more context than their standalone performance; sandwiched between two quite distinctive quiet-loud-quiet-loud bands, it's always going to be a hard task to err on the more sustained quiet side and break through.

Very much looking forward to some headline A Broken Sail shows, without the anticipatory chatter of Codeine fans waiting for the main event.

When that main event happened, there was no more chatter. Much like seeing a Low show, there was a respect and reverence rarely afforded live acts on a Saturday night at one of Melbourne's biggest 'pub rock' venues.

When the trio casually walked out and took up position, a hush fell over the packed band room, showing pretty quickly what this gig meant to so many people in the audience.

Codeine aren't ones for mixing up their set list – and, to be fair, they don't have a whole lot to play with, given their limited catalogue – so their Australian tour song line-up has remained very predictable, if you're into doing your research on such things.

Fittingly, they opened with 'D', also the first song from their debut album, 1990's 'Frigid Stars LP', followed by that same record's 'Cigarette Machine'. Longtime fans were then rewarded with 'Barely Real', from the band's 1992 EP of the same name.

It felt a little like the entrée to the main meal, which was of course the crux of 'The White Birch', and there was no better way to kick it off than with 'Loss Leader', a standout from the album. Equal parts hushed meandering guitar tones and cacophonous noise, this song (that is more than 30 years old) sounded as fresh as ever.

'Washed Up', 'Tom' and 'Sea' soon followed, as did the fitting and wonderful Joy Division cover of 'Atmosphere', and in no time the set was over.

Frontman Stephan Immerwahr joked several times that despite their appearance and reserved presence, they were incredibly happy to finally be in Australia to play these very, very long-awaited shows.

It was a reminder that while live music often hinges on the quality of a 'performance' by those onstage, this band was just one – but an important one – that let introverted bedroom songwriters know they could play in front of a crowd and let the songs do the talking.

This may be one of the most important legacies of Codeine, and the indie slowcore scene in general. At times it's easy to forget that some of the most talented musicians and songwriters are not and never will be natural performers onstage – nor love the spotlight – and nor should they have to pretend to be anything but themselves.

Tonight, Codeine reminded us all of this. A short encore followed, which included 'Promise Of Love', a cover of the 1970s art rock MX-80 Sound song that undoubtedly inspired the title of one of this reviewer's favourite albums of all time from American Analog Set.

While we would have loved more – aka the entire back catalogue played – it was still a near-perfect set of songs most people in the audience would never have thought they'd ever see live in this country, let alone anywhere else, since Codeine have only played a handful of shows since disbanding in the 1990s.

Special mention must go to the mixing desk, too; the sound was absolutely perfect for a band that has always pushed the 'quiet-loud' dynamics like few others.

While it was the band's second gig of the day, it never felt like they were going through the motions or wanted to be anywhere else. Given their limited performances since disbanding in the late 1990s, their fans were more than happy to file out (or mob the merch desk) at midnight, happy to tick off an incredible bucket-list band they most likely never expected to see live at all.

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