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Glenn Branca | The Ascension (Acute)
In the current climate of translucent facsimiles of the late '70s New York No Wave scene, this remixed reissue of 'The Ascension', originally released on the 99 Records label, home to the spellbinding syncopation of Liquid Liquid amongst others, is a comfortingly confrontational reminder of the real deal. Branca's avant-rock playing in legendary outfits The Static and the Theoretical Girls predate the 'guitar army' that is premiered on this release. Five instrumental pieces, performed by a 4 guitar/bass/drums ensemble absorb the leftfield experiments of The Velvet Underground, Neu! and minimalists such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass but create a wholly new music in the process, a music that breathtakingly resonates 25 years later. Although the aforementioned reference points may seem familiar, in terms of emotional engagement, Branca's guitar symphonies are only comparable to themselves. On release, 'The Ascension' forced a frenzied critical debate as to the nature of the compositions: was this a classical/experimental ensemble performing 'rock' music or a rock band working in the experimental/classical traditions? This listener perceives Branca's work as a wonderful (and accessible) assimilation of the two, but surely critical rhetoric is left redundant in the presence of such powerful, emotionally charged music.
Opener Lesson No.2 introduces us to Branca's abandoned and uncoiling snake of sound, as the four clanging and breathless electric guitars charge into the composition, dragged along by the relentlessness of the bass and drums. This is indeed relentlessness in its most positive form as no piece outstays its welcome, regardless of length. The composition concludes with gargantuan guitar clangs, slicing the air as if the Exploding Plastic Inevitable had commandeered Big Ben. The Spectacular Commodity and the title track begin with great clusters of guitar, hovering unchained from the earth, like one of Ligeti's majestic contributions to Kubrick's '2001', before embarking on their mantric, linear odysseys. This is music that is both ancient and modern, familiar and unexpected, atonal yet beautifully crafted. Branca's muse permeates the guitar experiments of both My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth, whose Lee Ranaldo features here and provides a fascinating snapshot of the No Wave scene in his album notes. Indeed, the titling of 'The Ascension' in a '70s rock context is wholly appropriate, alluding to the brave new world of possibilities that John Coltrane's album of the same name revealed to the '60s jazz fraternity.
CWAS #12 - Summer 2003