The Ascension (2022 Repress)
"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.
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"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 Rós, 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 Scorsese 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."