Glenn Branca - The Ascension

Glenn Branca
The Ascension

Released 1981 on 99 Records
Reviewed by Lugia, 04/01/2004ce

Glenn Branca: "The Ascension"
99 Records 99-01LP, recorded/released 1981.

1) Lesson No. 2 (4:59)
2) The Spectacular Commodity (12:41)
3) Structure (3:00)
4) Light Field (in Consonance) (8:17)
5) The Ascension (13:10)

Branca's music in these early forays, which include this album, his "Symphony No. 1", and this album's predecessor, the 12" "Lesson No. 1", are strange but satisfying affairs which graft 'classical' minimalism onto a heavy rock vocabulary that would be more akin to The Stooges. Emerging from the NYC Downtown scene, Branca began experimenting with this artistic hybrid around 1980, in small ensembles that would include future members of Sonic Youth and The Swans, as well as New Music notables such as Ned Sublette.

This first full-length LP of Branca's work features the quad-guitar attack of David Rosenbloom, Lee Ranaldo, Ned Sublette, and Branca himself, along with Jeffrey Glenn on bass and Stephan Wischerth on drums. Starting with the two part "Lesson No. 2", which butts one consonant rave-up like section against one made up of pure dissonant crashes, the album segues into its first long work, "The Spectacular Commodity". And this IS spectacular! Slabs of dissonance result as guitar piles on guitar, then matters emerge into this strange swaggering repeated figure, very menacing, heavy...and the drums start to bash. And then we're into some driving rock-noise soundtrack music for car chases, craziness...then triumphant fanfares of distorted strings!

Sound interesting? Yeah, it is, in a weird way that you could only get if you combined the adventure of the late 70s/early 80s NYC No Wave and New Music scenes and layered in a load of Detroit metal and a dash of "White Light/White Heat" for good measure. That's pretty much what's going on here. The guitar work is eye-popping, assaultive on frequent occasions, and often in shrill attack-mode as Branca also employs 'travel-size' guitars strung and tuned very high and oddly as part of his arsenal during this period.

The ensemble here (I really can't say this is a 'band', given the sort of music we're dealing with) is very tight, and given that this sort of work needs that sort of tightness, it just adds to the crunch of it all.

As you go on, "Structure" features an attack of repeated 'chime' chords, like some sort of insane slasher movie music, over Wischerth's hammering drumming. The tension here is so thick, you could spread it like peanut butter. Extra-chunky, too. By the time side one's over, you're both exhiliarated AND exhausted by the bashing, but you've just gotta flip it over and keep going...

And right into ONE NOTE...and playing around with "Light Field". Amazing. It's easy to see from this one piece alone why Branca writes symphonies, as this is what you'd likely get if Beethoven wrote for the MC5. Runs cascade up and down the modal scale of the work over the Velvets-like drone-blang that underpins the proceedings here. And then into this back and forth chiming interplay that really belies the classical origins this all comes out of. Cadence works like Ludwig Van, too. Yeeahhhh...

Then into the menace that starts the title track. The guitars start sawing dissonantly on a note or two. More tension...builds...builds...builds...and the drums start to bash impatiently, as if presaging something. It's like waiting for some sort of explosion that you just KNOW is coming...but you can't quite be sure WHEN! Good god...

And then they all clip into a breakneck run...and then into some Ligeti-meets-Fred "Sonic" Smith kerrrang...and then back...and forth...and back...and forth...more tension...and THEN...

It stops...and starts...and stops...and MORE tension, tension, tension!

Is THIS the end? NO! More TENSION...

Branca's really a master of this. It's like some sort of horror film where you JUST KNOW something bad will be happening to those kids, and you just get led along and on and on until OHMYFRICKINGAWWWD!!!!!!!LOOKATALLTHATBLOOOOODDD!!!!!!! Like that. Yeah. In full-on Stooges-type sonic attack. By the time "The Ascension" peaks, you've fled the room...not because the piece is BAD, but because you're CONVINCED the stereo is going to EXPLODE! And by god, IT DOES! You'd think, at least...

Damn satisfying. This is one album you really feel like you need a cigarette after. Japanese guitar shrillness + classical chops + screaming sonics = orgasm? Could be, could be...

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