Lockdown Listening: Glenn Branca – The Ascension (1981)

Never judge an LP by it’s cover. Or maybe you should? How you present something is not a mere accident, but a wanton description of what something really is, and how the artist behind the work thinks. This is how I discovered Glenn Branca and this album. The cover is a striking painting by Robert Longo. It depicts a suited Branca dragging the body of another man somewhere. Is he drunk? Is he dead? Unconscious? I don’t entirely know, but it sure is striking and I have a lot to thank him for. Ever since, this has been one of my favourite albums. The artistic idea comes from Branca, who asked the painter for an “implication” of two men having sex. I’ll leave your imagination there, but tell me you aren’t intrigued.

It is made apparent that a lot of people have felt this way since. Although only selling 10,000 copies, the fingerprints of the future are left all over it’s cover. Sounds from My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth (A young Lee Ronaldo plays on this record) and Swans are everywhere in it’s interior, and for good reason. Focusing in reptition, tonal changes and harmonic structure, Branca works a truly unusual sound that could make one rethink the technicality of the guitar. In one instance Branca has all four of his guitarists tune every string to an E so he can get 24 E notes on top of each other. Here, the group sound more like an orchestra, or choir than a guitar driven group. It’s enough to make John Cage shiver.

Branca creates soundscapes over songs. He plants vivid images in the mind while doing this. Take ‘The Spectacular Commodity’ for example, where he works in a harmonic structure. The number is filled with different movements, likewise to classical music. Yet it’s guitar driven instrumentation differs. It’s here where he sets the ground rules for post rock. Opening up with blocks of noise, Branca builds into a tense and furious crescendo. Close your eyes and picture people crushed together on New York subways, but only from the eyes of a claustrophobic outsider stuck in the midst of them. The guitars lift and go their separate ways into gratifying trails of picked riffs, as if everyone has left the train and it’s protagonist can breathe again. Through this number there are moments of extreme beauty as the overtones of the instruments wash over each other. Still, there is always the shadow of malice round the corner from them. You can thank the resonating, crushed cymbals for the apocalyptic doom leering in the background.  

This apocalyptic sound doesn’t leave in the albums duration. In fact it gets more intense. It is enough to choke it’s listener on some tracks. On ‘Structure’ Branca makes what sounds like a synthesiser out of guitar harmonics, but not a pleasant one. Check the liner notes. I promise he wasn’t playing a synth. He makes use of repetition in these icy notes. The tones of the notes alter and become more distorted. It is the musical equivilant to David Lynch’s ‘Eraserhead‘.

A similar approach is taken on ‘Lesson No 2’. A bass and tom driven number. It could be the soundtrack of a paranoid, schizoid junkie on his way to meet his dealer. It’s dirty, grimy and distorted. Being enough to put one on edge, and potentially be dubious on continuing the albums listen. The bass is so off kilter, like a drunk man stumbling. It is downright unsettling. Though maybe the most akin to Branca’s previous band ‘Theoretical Girls’ (also highly recommended).

This album may have no lyrics, but it speaks for itself. The fuck you attitude really shows in its title track, where Branca caccoons himself into his most experimental and noisy territory. It is pure drone that splits your headphones in two as it builds. I could go on for ages about how hypnotising, and downright thrilling this thing is, but a lot of it can’t be put into words. Mix the punk rock attitude, avant gardisms and methodical structure for this brew. Turn it up full volume until the neighbours call the loony asylum. It’s sound and fury as Shakespeare would say, and it’s downright brilliant.

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