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Glenn Branca - The Ascension

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Artist: Glenn Branca

Album: The Ascension

Label: Acute

Review date: Jun. 20, 2003

Guitar 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.

By Charlie Wilmoth

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