Glenn Branca, The Ascension
I stumbled across The Ascension, the first full album by New York guitar-army composer/conductor Glenn Branca, at my old college radio station, and I was immediately hooked. You can't judge an album by its cover, but the Robert Longo-drawn cover of this album made me want to judge its contents. Unlike other records emenating from New York's then-happening (for some, that is) "No Wave" scene, this one packed a tight, walloping punch; it didn't sound like closet Jefferson Airplane cover band flunkies masquerading as Ornette Coleman disciples. Four specially tuned guitars, bass, and drums hammered away at five industrial-strength pieces that sounded then - and now - like some combination of minimalist composer Steve Reich, the Velvet Underground's noisier stomps, and the sweeping violins excerted in Apocalypse Now from Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries. Here, former Teardrop Explodes mastermind, Julian Cope, describes the sound of this record better than I do here.*
I would buy one other Branca album, Symphony #1, I believe, which was basically the sound of a dozen guitarists holding a single note at a low volume for 40 minutes. Someday I'll buy another album of his, especially if I can remember which one it was I saw performed at Drexel University in the mid- to late-80s. The show was booked as part of the university's classical music program, and seeing all the middle-aged subcribers holding their ears was a treat. More of a treat, however, was seeing the music performed live. If memory serves, he had eight guitarists and a drummer that night, including the very cool writer Tim Sommer and the guy who would partner with him in Hugo Largo (ugh - the performance I saw of that band is sure to make my forthcoming Overlooked Turds... blog - but let's keep this blog on the up and up!). Combined with Branca's contortions as conductor there was enough visual stimulation to have made the show memorable had I gone completely deaf. Had I been deaf, however, the beautiful vibrations from the stage would have been icing on the cake. You get the idea. The show ROCKED. For an encore, the band, with Branca joining in on guitar and with at least half of the members displaying the grins evident of the recent inhalation of a big joint, came out and played "Sister Ray".
*It should be noted that this Head Heritage site that Cope is behind may be an Overlooked Gem unto itself. For my money, the man's writing on overlooked gems of his lifetime far outweigh his own musical contributions.