Glenn Branca’s The Ascension was one of those rare records that managed to change things. Maybe not right away, but as time has passed, it’s importance and influence has become more and more clear. Branca’s idea was to marry the repetition and process of minimalism with the energy and aesthetic of rock music. The Ascension’s predecessor Lesson No. 1 showed this in a simple and refined manor but on the Ascension, everything was turned up to 11.
Glenn had put together a small group to tour in 1980. The “Ascension band” included Ned Sublette, David Rosenbloom, Branca and future Sonic Youth-er Lee Ranaldo on guitar, Jeffrey Glenn on bass and Stephan Wischerth on drums. By the time they recorded in 1981 they must have been a hell of a band. Recorded and mixed at the Power Station and mastered by Howie Weinberg, the Ascension is a truly fantastic sounding record, and is one of the benchmarks for total guitar awesome-ness. Chiming, ringing, chugging guitar bliss. In his liner notes to Acute’s CD reissue, Ranaldo complains however that the true sound of the Ascension could only be heard in a live room, where all the tonalities could crash against each other in the open air. We’ll have to take his word for it and settle for the record they released though, something nobody’s complained about yet! The Ascension came out in 1981 on the seminal label 99, where it was greeted with wide critical acclaim.
While looking at all the press that followed it’s release, one cannot avoid the debate, is The Ascension a rock band performing classical pieces, or an experimental ensemble performing rock music? Glenn’s prior work in The Static and the Theoretical Girls represented some of the most aggressively avant-rock sounds of the New Wave era, while his work in the two decades since has taken on a decidedly “classical” approach. However, for a brief moment, Branca and his band were able to transcend such classifications as High Art vs. Pop Culture, Classical Music vs. Rock and Roll, and release a record that, amongst all the debate, at least had all the critics agreeing on one thing: The Ascension is truly awesome. The Ascension features 5 compositions, none a moment too long or too short , none too leftfield to be inaccessible, none so mainstream to be boring. Just 40 minutes of sheer guitar bliss.
Acute’s release of The Ascension marked its domestic debut on CD, and to celebrate, extras were added. This version is completely remastered by Chicago neo-no wave legend Weasel Walter of The Flying Luttenbachers and features a short but intense video clip of Glenn performing live in Soho from 1978. Lee Ranaldo has also supplied us with liner notes that give a fascinating insight not only into his work with Branca, but into the overall social and artistic atmosphere of downtown New York City in the early 80s. Additional artwork by Robert Longo (who designed the original cover) is also included.
Glenn Branca-Lightfield (In Consonance) (excerpt)
1 Lesson, No.2
2 The Spectacular Commodity
4 Lightfield (In Consonance)
5 The Ascension
A few years prior to the Ascension, Glenn improvises at one of Jeffrey Lohn’s loft shows.
Vanity Fair, October 2003
David bowie picks his favorite 25 records
Bought in Zurich, Switzerland. This was an impulse buy. The cover got me. Robert Longo produced what is essentially the best cover art of the 80s (and beyond, some would say). Mysterious in the religious sense, Renaissance angst dressed in Mugler. And on the inside…Well, what at first sounds like dissonance is soon assimilated as a play on the possibilities of overtones from massed guitars. Not minimalism, exactly – unlike LaMonte Young and his work within the harmonic system, Branca uses the overtones produced by the vibration of a guitar string. Amplified and reproduced by many guitars simultaneously, you have an effect akin to the drone of Tibetan Buddhist monks but much, much, much louder. Two key players in Branca’s band were future composer David Rosenbloom (the terrific Souls of Chaos, 1984) and Lee Ranaldo, founding figure with Thurston Moore of the great Sonic Youth. Over the years, Branca got even louder and more complex than this, but here on the title track his manifesto is already complete.
Careless Talk Saves Lives July 2003
Finally, Glenn Branca’s classic “The Ascension” has just been reissued by Acute, and, as you would expect, it’s magnificent, huge and dense and threshing and full of miraculous clouds of overtone hover and viciously breathed guitar heaviness. It’s a classic piece of NYC loft process-rock brutalism that no home should live without. And if that’s not enough, the sheer sonic violence of the two-minute solo performance, captured on film and appended to the disc, is one of the most exhilirating things I’ve heard since Keiji Haino first blatted my head’s way. And, really, can you ask for more than that?
Kerrang, June 21 2003
Guitar-mangling pioneer on an undiscovered alt-rock classic. The missing link between Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth, Glenn Branca played a pivotal role in the evolution of guitar music. Deconstructing the electric guitar and rebuilding it as howling, clunking, feedback-drenched symphonies that utilized multiple players, his work owes just as much to the experimental sounds of Philip Glass as The Stooges. Cutting his teeth alongside the NY punks of the late ’70s, Branca’s “The Ascension” (released in 1981) features future Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo and is one of the great undiscovered gems of no wave/alternative rock. Nihilism, discordance, chaos and tightly-wound musicianship are the order of the day here, ‘pieces’ such as “The Ascension” and the 12-minute “The Spectacular Commodity” the 1980′s underground’s versions of the ’1812 Overture’. In a word: visionary.
NME, June 14th 2003
New York visionary’s symphonic guitar piece While most of his downtown contemporaries seemed set on dragging punk rock into the gutter, Glenn Branca had a higher purpose. On 1981′s “The Ascension”, four guitars are gathered into a shrieking symphony, multiple strings tuned to the same note to ratchet up the sheer aural overload. It’s by turns gratingly shrill and starkly beautiful – like the ghost of Joy Division’s ‘Atmosphere’ channeled into a towering Marshall stack. Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo plays here, and Thurston Moore would later join Branca’s ranks. But while the Youth derived much from this monolithic maelstrom, they would never better it.
The Telegraph, June 14th 2003
In recent years, Glenn Branca has come to be associated more with the classical end of avant-garde music, alongside Philip Glass and Steve Reich, creating mesmerizing, repetitive tone cycles as part of his eponymous Ensemble. But he started out making experimental rock music with the likes of Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore, who went on to infiltrate the mainstream as members of Sonic Youth. Recorded in 1981, this album, released for the first time on CD, features Ranaldo as one of four guitarists that Branca put together in an attempt to trample over the limitations of the more conventional new wave sounds of the time. Like Patti Smith and Television, his musicians came out of the exhilaratingly pretentious scene that centred around downtown New York in the late 1970s. On each of the five compositions they wield their guitars like harmonious power tools, frightening and often ear-splitting in their strength. Not the easiest of records to listen to, but still sounding thrillingly new 22 years after its first release.
Uncut, June 2003
Overdue reissue of No Wave classic — five stars The guitar wizard at the forefront of NYC late-70s/early-’80s “No Wave”, Glenn Branca mated contemporary classical structure with ear-splitting noise-rock in a manner that served both camps equally well, influencing avant noiseniks from Sonic Youth on. Branca’s second release for NY underground label 99 (home to ESG, Liquid Liquid, etc) is reissued here in all its multi-timbral glory, as sheets of cascading guitars carefully negotiate the balance between chaos and control. Extras like a live video clip and notes from Branca’s sideman/future Sonic Youth member Lee Ranaldo sweeten the pot.
The Wire, June 2003
Originally released in 1981 on 99 records, Glenn Branca’s The Ascension provides a fantastic snapshot of a transitional moment in the history of New York’s downtown music. It represents the first attempt to rebuild on ground previously leveled by No Wave groups Mars, Teenage Jesus & The Jerks, Red Transistor and Branca’s own The Static and Theoretical Girls. No Wave was primarily fuelled by profound acts of reversal and subtraction, where any overt notions of melody, form and musicianship were stripped out in favour of a more elemental and emotionally direct attack. All substance and no style, No Wave made expressive use of volume and rhythm, with barked monosyllabic vocals reducing language to primal phonetics. Yet despite No Wave’s aggressively inarticulate stance, most of its players were more selfconscious than first wave punks, their assault on form more deliberate than intuited. No Wave was a signal moment in that it represented a deliberate attempt to fuse volatile elements from various avant garde disciplines with rock aesthetics and a post-punk DIY ethos. Guitarist and composer Glenn Branca was one of the first of this group of players to fully articulate this bent polygot. In No Wave’s eviscerated forms, he divined a new kind of minimalism, one that had more to do with the claustrophobic street noise echoing around the skyscraping sound mirrors of downtown than the meditative headspaces of Terry Riley’s A Rainbow in Curved Air. For The Ascension, Branca stuck to the pummeling rhythms and studiously artless downstrokes that characterized No Wave, but added massed guitars, some with multiple strings tuned to the same note. Branca and his then regular group – guitarists Lee Ranaldo, Ned Sublette, David Rosenbloom, bassist Jeffrey Glenn and drummer Stephen Wischerth – work through the implications of this approach, still a rock group but now boasting an orchestral reach. Tracks like “Lesson no. 2″ and “The Spectacular Commodity” anticipate groups like Sonic Youth (Thurston Moore also passed through Branca’s ranks), Swans and Savage Republic, but the title track – a 13 minute instrumental speaking in tongues unknown-remains inviolable. Between them the four guitarists generate an unearthly torrent, rising through a series of metallic plateaux that dissolve like breath with the sudden shift of a chord. In the sleevenotes Lee Ranaldo bemoans the fact that the guitars were close miked in the studio, claiming that the lack of room tone robs the recording of the kind of power they were able to channel when agitating the volume of air in a concert hall or club; but it’s precisely the music’s unyielding quality and eye-level fury that marks The Ascension out as something else entirely. Call it a Heavy Metal symphony, punk rock minimalism, avant drone, whatever you want. It’s a beautiful noise.
Sunday Times Culture, June 29th 2003
Prepare for a slurry of vintage New York egghead art-rock. This month sees the release of two compilations of late-1970s/early-1980s downtown dissonance. New York Noise (soul jazz) and NY No Wave (Ze), but Glenn Branca’s 1981 album The Ascension is a cornerstone of the scene, now re-released with criminally nostalgic sleeve notes from eyewitness Lee Ranaldo, of Sonic Youth. Critics compared Branca’s ensemble to the Ramones playing Philip Glass, but this equation neglects Branca’s spatial awareness of silence, and the disorienting, nauseatingly spiritual effects of his ensemble’s profound repetitions. A bonus black-and-white video clip of Branca, suited and soloing alone against a white backdrop in 1978, is an iconic image of cool that towers above the current New York crop’s hand-me-down insouciance.
Three Stars = outstanding
Mojo, July 2003
Second solo album from ’81 features a fresh-faced Lee Ranaldo. Spotlights Sonic Youth’s debt to this pioneer. Originally released at the time of the New York No Wave scene-something Branca had himself been involved in with The Theoretical Girls and The Static – this was something way, way beyond. A mere four guitarists – including Branca himself – and one bass feature here, less than half the players on some of his symphonies, but they still sound like they could flatten a house. Twenty-two years on the metallic clang and combination of dissonance and strange harmonies in this music is still amazing. It was cranked out at such a level that although it overlapped with the world of ‘serious’ composition, in essence it was pure rock. The only minor gripe is that the drums thunder along with little apparent connection to the rest of the instruments. But it still sounds like nothing else, especially the title track, a guitar hurricane made up of monstrous, hitherto unimagined chords.
Record Collector, July 2003
Emerging from New York’s no-wave movement of the 1970s, Glenn Branca seems simultaneously inspired by Steve Reich and the Ramones, creating recordings that take cues from both minimal classical and rock ‘n’ roll music. Since the original release of The Ascension in 1981, the former member of the Static and the Theoretical Girls has composed pieces for between 100 and 2000 guitar players. The Ascension might only feature five further co-conspirators (including Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo, who also contributes retrospective sleeve notes) but Branca, nevertheless, strived for a sense of enormity and magnitude that he would attempt more literally with three-figure band lineups. Despite this breadth of vision, however, The Ascension’s five compositions (two of which extend beyond 12 minutes) are peculiarly tedious. The clanging, jarring guitars are akin to a war of attrition and a de facto reminder of the beauty of silence.
Muzik, July 2003
This remastered re-release of Glenn Branca’s 1981 debut is a must for anyone who’s ever enjoyed the acid-edged, urban dream worlds of Neu and Sonic Youth (Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth was in Branca’s band at the time) or the epic noise-rock of GYBE, Black Dice, or, most of all, late-period Swans. Underpinned by Krautrock-ish rhythms, the music goes from spine-tingling, wordless neo-ambience, to an engulfing sonic assault that’s like having black ants swarm over you. An astonishing record, whose power has been dimmed neither by oddly over-warm production or time.
In bands such as the Static and Theoretical Girls, Glenn Branca helped to spawn New York City’s evanescent yet seminal No Wave movement. But his most lasting and loudest work occurred in the massive symphonies he recorded under his own name, many of which — along with Rhys Chatham’s similar pieces — laid the foundation for noise rock. Throughout the ’80s, no other figure more exhilaratingly combined neoclassical arrangements and tonal exploration with feral Lower East Side rock energy and volume. The Ascension originally came out in 1981, and its influence still reverberates through the rock underground. Sonic Youth, for one, owes a huge debt to Branca. (SY guitarist Lee Ranaldo plays on this disc and pens liner notes.) Using four guitars, bass and drums, Branca’s ensemble creates a caustic clangor with a Wagnerian will-to-power that makes much of The Ascension sound like a clarion call for military mobilization. (These guitars are WMD.) The awesome title track is Branca’s crowning achievement, a grotesquely quixotic articulation of the desire to be superhuman — or at least to forge the ultimate guitar tone, the all-encompassing KLANG that conjures images of the birth of stars, planets and galaxies.
xlr8r, July 2003
The 80s revival shouldn’t be seen as entirely shallow and insipid. With the renewed interest in all things No Wave, releases such as this offer the more potent Jekyll to electroclash’s innocuous Hyde. Best known for linking up Sonic Youth anti-guitarists Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore (only Ranaldo is present in this five-guitar line up), Glenn Branca’s own small guitar arsenals have become the stuff of legend. If these recordings pale in comparison to the live experience, the ecstatic drone of “Light Field (In Consonance)” and theatrical histrionics of “The Spectacular Commodity” are no less rapturous for it. Essential.
Vice July 2003
“Best Cover of the Month”
’Ä®If five guitars droning amid prehistoric drum rhythms in a bristling, effervescent wave of electric speed isn’t your idea of heaven, you need to get with it, like, quick. This is what Yngwie Malmsteen might have done if he ever stopped using his guitar as an extension of his dick. OK, not really. But you get the idea.
Tandem Newspaper, June 29 2003
The godfather of New York noise-rock, Glenn Branca, has his seminal first album from 1981 remastered and finally reissued in the US (it’s cd debut was on the Italian experimental label NewTone). Branca is the composer who came out of New York’s “No Wave” art-punk scene with an idea of massed guitars with precise tunings, that grew from four players (plus bass and drums) on The Ascension to orchestras playing specially built instruments with steel strings – even up to 2000 musicians for a special millennium performance in Paris! Guitarists who played in his groups over the years included members of Sonic Youth, Swans, Helmet and Band Of Susans, who took Branca-style dissonance into their own rock contexts. But what Branca heard in live performances of longer, sustained pieces like “The Ascension” was the textural possibilities for his subsequent wall-of-sound symphonies that were composed with an ear for the ghostly “resultant tones” produced by such complex tunings. In this way he burst upon the avant garde sound worlds of composers Penderecki and Ligeti, scaring theorists like John Cage with his wild, ecstatic energy.
Sounds and a place that is said to no longer exist is the poetic claim used to analogue this studio accomplishment. A musical craft that the engineers could not completely handle after its etching in 1981. Documenting this avant-garde emission as an antidote for the schematic blandness found in much of today’s musical potions (whose palatableness involves little thought or work) is contrary to its potential as an augmentation of the malignancy created by the lust for making something new. This escapade subtly abandons familiar conventions and shatters the dichotomy between the collective and the self, as it is a great feat to achieve the two at once. It is experimentation presented by an ensemble of trained “middle class wanderers” consisting of four guitars, a bass, and drums. Here, the usual suspects of a traditional orchestra can be found. And the elements of conceptual art are well dwarfed by technical strategies and sheet music. The tuning is abnormal, yet precise. Theatrical and cinematic styles are intrinsic in its direction, making for tense, suspenseful, and, of course, climactic musical landscapes. Beyond the 19th century romantic spikings, the dramatic intentions of their music were apparent in live performances as they coaxed “demons into actuality” and “grated strings in a crucifixion pose” but now, can only be imagined when listening. Although subsequent echoes exemplify The Ascension’s impact on art noise as a movement, these sounds for the time were undeniably uncharted, and perhaps even unmappable. Rock-guitar-turned-stringed-orchestra, the vessel for destination nouveau. The points of reference that apply to this “high art” are indefinite. One could easily point their finger at scientists like Per Ubu, Sonic Youth, or Blonde Redhead, who all create a sandwich in terms of the musical timeline; Glenn Branca being the meat between the buns. But there is hardly any trace of homage paid to the music scene that was saturating the eardrums of every hip animal in New York City at the time of its release. Looking to their historical musical antecedents, Branca and his clan rely heavily on repetition for their inquiries, they twang strings, they hit things. At times this group of musicians sounds as though it was just born, and discovering music and their instruments for the first time. And at other times like an advanced species that has stumbled upon a new, more advanced form of expression used to summon a greater type of being. The locality of The Ascension sound is not insignificant; its terrain is not stagnant. It is all epic.
Giant Robot, Summer 2003
Mixing high-art music with lo-fi punk rock, this 1981 recording pits the rhythm section against four guitarists including Branca, David Rosenbloom, Ned Sublette, and Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo. Guess who won? These four pieces place rock guitar in an instrumental and experimental setting, spending up to 13 minutes to explore riffs, melodies, and songs. It’s very melodic-at times dramatic-with themes coming, going, weaving, and growing on an orchestral level. There’s also a short film to help you visualize the chaos.
Logo Magazine, June 2003
Nostalgia is a curious phenomenon, the post-event cool afforded the likes of Abba and the Carpenters proves that, and looking back to “the good old days” is an undertaking to be approached with caution. So, listening to Glenn Branca’s “the Ascension” twenty-two years after its initial release, is this the apogee of the avant-garde “no wave” movement pioneered by Branca’s own Theoretical Girls, or forty minutes of pretentious self-indulgence? The answer comes by a circuitous route: Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore served time with Branca, and the roots of the Youth’s genius are here, as are the seeds of Tortoise, Godspeed You! Black Emperor; listen closely and you’ll even hear then-contemporaries Joy Division and Echo and the Bunnymen. Self-indulgent it may be, pretentious it certainly is not; this is the ORIGINAL pirate material.
Pitchfork Media June 20th, 2003
I was teaching the Dwight highschoolers how to drunk-drive when I first heard The Ascension. “When the vision’s getting blurry, when you can’t handle yer liquor or yer speed,” I said, “cover one eye and your head’ll stop spinning. It takes that binocular dilemma right out of there so you can see straight. Visionary or not, it’s easy to steer straight with only one eye working.” Glenn Branca knows nothing about this: he was never one to limit his vision. Seeing Rock out of one side and Academic out the other, the two only blurred together in his third eye. By 1981, Branca had already played in Rhys Chatham’s Guitar Trio for four years, and had disbanded his No Wave groups Theoretical Girls and The Static to focus on larger movements for amplified guitar. He had even completed compositions like “Lesson No.1″ and “Dissonance”, bringing to light the possibilities for multiple guitars beyond the Molly Hatchet formations of the early 70s. But the group he assembled to play a rare tour of the States around 1980 would cohere in such a way as to make his most recent work to that point, “The Ascension”, his most fully realized. Featuring David Rosenbloom from downtown group Chinese Puzzle, as well as future Sonic Youth guitar-beating beat Lee Ranaldo, the piece was scored for four guitars, bass, and drums; his sextet was Times Square neon and the ghost-light luminance of the city at 3 a.m. focused into a laser-like intensity. It was ferocity never seen nor heard before, not even on that coast-to-coast tour, where the guitars would slash it out on stage nightly, roaring alive like the 6 train, one-eyed through dank tunnels across the country. Trying to capture that essence in the elitist Power Station studio, even Ranaldo– in his excellent liner notes for this reissue– admits it was hard to recreate the actual beast. Whatever Weasel Walter was able to glean digital remastering from is unbeknownst to me, but this thing is fucking huge. You can sure bet Branca knows about driving drunk: he swerves about on these city streets between two musical extremes like a pilled-n-pompadoured Popeye Doyle on his way to the French Connection set. On one hand, he seems to be in the slow lane with all the Sunday drivers moving to Brahms and Buckner on the West Side Highway, making symphonic movements with the blinker on for miles before the turn. Riding on the Neu!-like toms of Stephan Wischerth and a bassline that lunges out like Drive Like Jehu, the four guitars in “Lesson No.2″ quickly gain on traffic, buzzing and droning about 88 miles faster than anyone else clogging the lanes. It sounds almost reckless, as he steers and swerves the guitars into the other lanes, right at the oncoming lights of punk-crushed cars, weaving in and out of traffic, and then suddenly cutting down dark Chinatown alleys of urban rot. Your knuckles turn white, clinging to the door handles– it feels so out of control, but every movement has been precisely laid-out. “The Spectacular Commodity” is precision defined, the massive guitars gleaming like metal and glass towers in a grand opening movement, its bass menacing the very foundations with a low rumble. The manic speed of the piece increases to white-hot levels of crashing, cacophonous overtone; from these bloodied guitar strings and twisted metal carnage you can discern not just the euphoric guitar bliss of everyone from Sonic Youth to My Bloody Valentine, but also the mighty crescendos of Sigur Ros, Mogwai, Black Dice, Godspeed You Black Emperor!, or whomever, here executed with a plasma-like energy and melodic/harmonic structure still light-years beyond the forenamed. “Light Field (In Consonance)” is as majestic as its title would suggest: guitars rain down like torrents from thunderclouds, but with a savagery typical of back alley stabbings. When the guitar strikes like sheets of lightning into these ascendant runs at the apex, it’s as anthemic and all-powerful as anything I’ve ever heard from a six-stringed electric, in rock or any experimental context. I’ve had the symphony of the streets do a little winking dance in a light drizzle to Monk’s solo piano playing before, I’ve had Ellington make the lights of Broadway glimmer and dance for miles. White Light/White Heat split my skull open with the cold cruelty of the last exit to Brooklyn, while Paul’s Boutique foretold the coke-smoking pleasures of the Vice lifestyle ten years before I arrived. Daydream Nation carved out the skyscraper shapes and dungeon scrapes of the sewer below in sound, but none of these quintessential New York records made every single movement of the Gotham populous move as one quivering entity in my head as does Branca’s finale, “The Ascension”. Every step pounded out on concrete, every seeping bag of dragged garbage, every rat squeal, every metal-on-metal cry of the arriving train on the third rail, every disfigured bum, and all the echoing voices seem to be notated for these detuned guitars. The nasty city these compositions were birthed in appears no longer to be with us. A ghost city, seemingly isolated to Martin Scorsece and Abel Ferrera videos, still haunts us as an ineffable layer over the cleaned city of Disney, as brutal and terrifying as the city has always been. She’s never left; it’s nice to have her back.
Noise Reissue The Ascension was written in 1980, but this reissue also contains a video clip of Glenn Branca playing electric guitar in 1978. Branca bangs his head wildly, thrashing at his guitar – the actual sounds produced, however, seem to bear a closer relationship to Branca’s proximity to his overdriven amp than to what he’s actually playing. The clip looks and sounds a little bit ridiculous now, especially since Branca was onstage by himself – it’s like a drunk teenager throwing a tantrum. But what Branca was doing must have seemed pretty wild then: New York’s No Wave scene (in which Branca was a key player) was in its infancy, and the closest antecedents for Branca’s noise either generally adhered to fairly traditional approaches to song form (punk rock) or dynamics (free jazz guitarist Sonny Sharrock). Fast forward two years, and Branca was still embracing noise but looking for new ways to shape it. The Ascension finds Branca in transition from his 1978 off-the-cuff screeching to his later punishing, layered guitar symphonies (the first of which was recorded in 1981). On The Ascension, the bombast of Branca’s later work is clearly present. The album features four guitarists (including Branca and future Sonic Youth member Lee Ranaldo) along with bass and drums. The guitars, usually played with nonstandard tunings, are set for stun – it usually sounds like all four guitarists are playing, and they’re almost always using distortion. And drummer Stephan Wischerth’s primal thumping rhythms will be familiar to fans of Branca’s later work. Also, the long running times and epic feel of many of the pieces on The Ascension show that Branca was already finding creative ways to work outside the confines of the standard rock song. The Ascension is every bit as dramatic as anything Branca was doing a decade later. Still, Branca had a long way to go before he wrote many of his gloriously loud symphonies, the defining characteristics of which were his uses of dense clouds of feedback sound made up of aggregates of weird guitar tones. Most of the guitar sounds on The Ascension are fairly straightforward, even dry, in comparison. The guitars interlock in patterns that are half minimalism (in that they’re simple and repetitive) and half heavy metal. Only on the excellent title track are they primarily used for texture. For that reason, The Ascension isn’t nearly as brutal or overloaded as much of Branca’s later work. But it’s a fascinating historical document, and it has still stood the test of time fairly well because of Branca’s ability to use extended forms to create drama.
Other Music June 17th, 2003
Finally, a legitimate re-release of Glenn Branca’s seminal debut long playing record that was originally released in 1981 on the most important independent New York label of the day, 99 records (home to Liquid Liquid, ESG). After moving to New York and fronting two of the most caustic no wave bands going (Theoretical Girls, Static), Branca honed his vision, taking out the histrionics, but leaving in the theatricality and grandiosity. This is huge music made with a small ensemble, and yet for all its reputed ugliness, the compositions here actually soar. Patterned guitar riffs create a forward moving velocity that belies the density of the songs. This is possibly the most listenable music to be sprung from no-wave; in fact it practically turns on the genre’s conventions by getting downright romantic at points. Branca’s ensemble famously employed Lee Renaldo (who is featured here) and Thurston Moore in their pre-Sonic Youth days, and the more you listen the more you realize how intensely this must have influenced their subsequent careers. Put this on and then give “Sister” (recorded three or four years later) a spin and you’ll see what I mean. Essential.
The San Francisco Bay Guardian June 11, 2003
Originally released on 99 Records in 1981, The Ascension marks a transition for Glenn Branca from his rock bands, the Static and Theoretical Girls, to the guitar symphonies he is best known for. Ascension can also be seen as the point at which the early-’80s New York underground merged with high-art ambition, exemplified by the Sonic Youth crew who served in Branca’s guitar army. You can hear it in a track like “Spectacular Commodity,” which shifts from dark, ominous clangings into triumphant melodies pulled out of four open-tuned electric guitars. The simple rhythm section of Stephen Wischerth and Jeffrey Glenn allows Branca’s, Lee Ranaldo’s, Ned Sublette’s, and David Rosenbloom’s guitars to collide and respond melodically. Even in his vocal groups, Branca’s songs were always repetitive and minimal, quite different from the raging skronk and skree that is associated with no wave. Though this record has its jarring, visceral moments, the harmonics and drones of “Light Field (In Consonance)” hint at the likes of Godspeed You! Black Emperor rather than the retro Gang of Four set. Just like Robert Longo’s famous fighting suits that adorn the cover, the record is about the savagery lurking under polite surfaces. As an embodiment of that tension between control and chaos, Ascension still sounds vital.
Comes With a Smile Summer 2003
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 references 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 tradition? This listener perceives Branca’s work as a wonderful (and accessible) assimilation of the two, but surely the 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.
Seattle Weekly August 5th, 2003
I spent an hour trying to figure out how to write this review without using a variation on the old “rock and classical make for uncomfortable bedfellows” saw. Then I gave up, because it’s true. Most of the time, the best you get are noble (or ignoble) (or ignorable) (or both) failures like Rachels or inspired one-offs like John Cale’s Paris 1919, on which Little Feat play chamber music. I spent another hour trying to figure out how to write this review without stating for the umpteenth time that Glenn Branca has been the most assiduous composer-performer attempting to bridge the gap in the last 20 years. But he has: Academy and street were never the same after ex-theater student Branca heard the high, singing note at the heart of the Ramones, the celestial monochord that binds the world. Branca’s spent the last 20-odd years refining his multiguitar orchestral idea (which he may have pinched from his close associate Rhys Chatham; see Table of the Elements’ recent, lovingly packaged Chatham set, An Angel Moves Too Fast to See). The Ascension is that idea in chrysalis. If tracks like “Lesson No. 2″ have the requisite no-wave chimes and onrushing tom-toms (simulating the 5:15 train or the first Television album), the longer pieces achieve a soaring lift that owes as much to Romanian modernist Gyorgy Ligeti as N.Y.C. no-wavers Mars. For anyone interested in the origins of what, say, Sonic Youth (whose Lee Ranaldo supplies liner notes) were doing until they became the world’s greatest classic-rock revival band, The Ascension is urgent and key.
Brooklyn Rail August/September 2003
More than the records he’s made, Glenn Branca’s real contribution to music is the whole aesthetic that he has helped to create. Like fellow New Yorker Laurie Anderson, he helped bring the world of avant composition and ideas into the realm of popular music. Depending on how you straddle the fence, you can either praise or blame him for the convergence of these once hostile worlds, something that’s been happening more and more in the last ten years as the lines between composers and rock musicians continue to blur.
Though this album, Branca’s second, was originally released twenty-two years ago (on 99 Records, a label that usually favored rock bands), the music holds up remarkably well’Äî and not just because it’s a piece of history by now. Most rock fans will probably know Branca’s group as the training ground for members of Sonic Youth, and indeed Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo appears on this record. In fact, the rave-ups heard here are definite precursors to what SY would soon be doing on their own soon afterward. Branca himself had rock roots, having worked in a band called Theoretical Girls (who’ve also recently had their work reissued on Acute Records) before embarking on a career as a composer.
For years, art-rock bands had used synthesizers to replicate string and horn sections. Branca had the same idea, but he decided that this could be accomplished with a guitar section. Accordingly, he and three other string-benders arranged their parts much as a classical ensemble would, with the help of a rhythm section. As far as classical music goes, Branca is less attuned to Cage and Stockhausen than to Wagner (with a touch of Duane Eddy and Link Wray) as he builds a dark majesty and grandeur in his compositions. The twelve-minute “Spectacular Commodity” starts with sinister/ringing guitars and then soars before picking up a 4/4 rock beat and resolving into sunny layers of sound. “Structure” is intense pounding and clanging’Äî basically, industrial music before its time. “Light Field (In Consonance)” is lighter, breathier, presenting an open and playful landscape leading to the sustained climaxes of the title track.
Another Downtown avant-rock pioneer, Rhys Chatham, might protest that he dreamt up the idea of a guitar orchestra first, but Branca still deserves credit for making a classical sensibility part of the downtown New York’Äìchic aura. Though he’s now gained enough respectability to get regular work doing film soundtracks, commissions, and actual orchestra scores, this well-crafted early recording is his real gift to music.
Blender September 2003
NYC experimentalist creates a rock symphony from guitar overload ****
There’s more than one way to make a guitar rock, No Wave linchpin Glenn Branca determined at the turn of the ’80s. On his second album, 1981′s The Ascension, Branca teamed up four guitarists – including future Sonic Youther Lee Ranaldo – to do what just one couldn’t: marshal a cascading, vibrating sheet of feedback that built songs out of sheer force. “The Spectacular Commodity” begins with call-and-response drones, then subtly accelerates until all four instruments are rifting in vicious conflagration – and that’s just the first half. The best of all is the 13-minute title track, which careens from somber shoegazing to eerie spectacle to ecstatic exuberance, unified by the violence of its four-times-six strings.
Phosphor Summer 2003
It was 1981 when four New York-based guitarists, a drummer and a bass-player came together to start releasing a remarkable concept, which had already been tried out in New York clubs and during a US live tour. Starting in the no wave bands The Static and the Theoretical Girls, Glenn Branca moved in a slightly different musical direction combining classical music and rock. Is the Ascension a rock band performing classical pieces or an experimental ensemble performing rock music? It’s a question that remains unanswered after listening to this album, or the ones by Glenn Branca that were released later in time. The driving, clanging guitar structures, mechanic drums and heavy bass have been put into classical settings, reminding of minimal classical composers such as Steve Reich. One of the band members Lee Ranaldo has continued this sound in Sonic Youth, one of the best underground guitar bands from the 80′s. All five compositions full of guitar bliss have a certain ominous tension and dissonant character, that remained unchanged and fascinating after all these years. The Ascension offers a nostalgic moment from one of the most interesting periods in the New York music scene.
Swingset #4 Fall 2003
Although this is sheer speculation, I would posit that the man, Glenn Branca, is almost no one’s favorite person. There is something about the way that Glenn carries himself, something about the way his hubris precedes him into a room, that many find a bit off-putting. But it is probably just these qualities (or variations of them) that have allowed Glenn to produce the substantial body of work that he has. His music was created more or less in opposition to extant traditions, and while the syncretic mesh it evidenced then may sound somewhat acceptable now, at the time it was viewed as aesthetic poison.
Much has been made of Branca’s early band recordings, both with The Theoretical Girls and with Static. There has been a great deal of talk about Glenn’s exclusion from the No New York comp and how that skewed people’s view of the No Wave scene. But the T-Girls, a band I liked quite a bit, were not (at least in my memory) truly of the same ilk as the core No Wave bands. They seemed much more clearly in the linear tradition of art-school/art-rock bands, and did not seem too out of line with widely popular combos of the early Hurrah! Period. This may have been because Jeffrey Lohn’s hand was as evident as Glenn’s was (if not more so) in shaping their live sound. But whatever the reason, The T-Girls did not come off as being as monolithically antithetical to rock-qua-rock as Teenage Jesus, The Contortions, Mars or DNA. Some would make the case that Static were something else again, but to my mind, it was when he started his ensembles that Branca really began moving into the unknown.
Although Rhys Chatham always points out that his fusion of rock-guitar-hugeness and minimalist/maximalist-dynamics prefigures Branca’s in all ways, there was always the sense that Branca was coming from a rock base while Chatham was coming out of ‘composition”. This made a lot of difference in how their musics were heard, relatively, and by whom. And really, think of it – inside of the ’70s/’80s rock continuum (where Branca was seen to function) it’d be a whole lot easier to make a radical move than it would inside of ‘serious” music of the same period. Chatham, by taking the approach he did, minimized the impact of his music on non-eggheads. Branca’s apparent decision to appear as a new distention of rock’s aesthetic gambol made it much easier for him to appear cutting edge. Not that this was necessarily a conscious decision, but it was a byproduct of the context in which Branca’s music evolved.
The early music of Glenn’s ensembles (which, loosely speaking, comprises this stuff and the Lesson No. 1 EP) was clearly perceived as great, graspable and extremely loud experimental rock music. There was a sense that it had plenty in common with the world of serious composition, but it never seemed of it in the way that Chatham’s did. As far as being off-puttingly noisy, well, in contrast to some of the other stuff that was going on just then (Remko Scha, Z’ev, Non, even Boris Policeband), there was a kind of approachability to Branca’s music that could really get you lurching in place in a way that suggested the music’s function was truly rockist in origin.
All of this comes to mind as I listen to The Ascension for the first time in a while. The textural guitar moves, overtone implications and crosscut rhythms here have been re-contextualized by so many people in the decades since this first appeared; it is difficult to remember how extreme it could sound at the time. And the visual memory of these skinny, goony guys all downstroking together is something that still brings a smile to my face. The particular unit on this disk – Ned Sublette, David Rosenbloom, Lee Ranaldo and Glenn on guitars; Jeffrey Glenn on bass; Stephen Wischerth on drums – really made an impression on late-night New York, as well as the world. Although each of the members had a unique vision that they eventually pursued, they all were really great at sublimating their desires to Glenn’s pulse, and the results still sound fantastic.
As Lee Ranaldo writes in his excellent liner notes, the sound and feel of this recording doesn’t really match the incredibly visceral feel of the band live, but I don’t know if anyone could have captured that in the day. These guys played so many shows in relative shit-boxes – low ceilings, lousy P.A.’s, nodding soundmen – that their live gigantism sometimes seems as though it was an attempt to just fucking flatten the surroundings (ala Borbetomagus). Glenn would be gesturing and grimacing like the leader of a very weird tactical militia, and the rest of them would be bearing down so fucking hard that it would hurt your ears just to look at them.
The Ascension (who but Branca would have the balls to name a record that?) does not quite recapitulate this feeling, but it is still a boss listen. Played loud, it is possible to appreciate the greatness of the shifts in landscape here, to wallow in the imaginary tone clusters like a fucking hog, to imagine yourself shaking sweat all over George Scott’s sneakers while these guys were throwing down on a hot summer night at Tier 3.
Of course, heard now, pieces like ‘Light Field (Inconsonance)” sound more like a chiming cross between The Who’s ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again” and Talking Heads ’77 than anyone could have imagined at the time. But it’s kind of cool to have enough distance on this stuff to see that is was part of the great rock-churn and not something from outer space (as many suspected). Because really, I think that’s what Glenn always kind of imagined it was – loud, loud avant rock, played the way it should be. And it really is beautiful stuff.
The sound of the transfer here is fine. Yeah, it could be louder, hotter, noisier, but I think that everything that was on the tapes is on the CD. Moreover, the bonus video track of Glenn spazzing on solo guitar in the manner of a fully caffeinated Rudolph Grey in 1978 is a portrait worth viewing. He was so young then, so wild, and I guess a lot of us were, too. Cool.
Perfect Sound Forever November 2003
The Ascension originally came out in 1981. This is the domestic debut on CD of the work, completely remixed by Weasel Walter of The Flying Luttenbachers. It is an enhanced CD featuring a video clip of a Branca performance from 1978. This album was the order formed from the determined chaos of Branca’s prior no wave bands The Static and Theoretical Girls. There is a focused aggression that is delivered with measured steps The guitar army that performs these instrumental avant-rock pieces is five strong, including a bassist. One of those is Lee Ranaldo. Ranaldo pens the liner notes that puts this monstrous opus in the context of New York at that time, when the musicians on here had come of age to Velvet Underground, Stockhausen, John Cage and more. Ranaldo reminds us that Branca did radical theater pieces before moving on to music. The music here written by Branca contains that sense of dramatic impact and larger-than-life scale that comes from his stage experience. This is also the closest thing to a rock album from this period so is the most accessible gateway into his art.
Official Web Site
Home to many other fine Branca releases
Review on Julian Cope’s site
Interview and Article
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