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Glenn Branca - The Third Ascension Music Album Reviews

The celebrated avant-garde composer’s final work is a shrine to ecstatic disorientation.

“There are very few animals that kill their own kind.” Avant-garde composer Glenn Branca often began interviews with bleak screeds on human existence. “We’re vicious, psychopathological beasts,” he said in 2011, referring to our planet as a “disgusting shithole.” It was easy to take one look at Branca, drink in hand and perpetually smoking, and think you had him figured out. It was even easier to hear his vitriolic compositions and find them oppressive and terrifying, as John Cage famously did in 1982. But there was always an armored optimism in Branca’s work that suggested: If we can get lost in this maddening sound, we might be able to transcend our shared shithole, if only for a moment. With Branca’s final work The Third Ascension, released a year and a half after he died of throat cancer, the composer and his ensemble take the familiar instruments of a rock band and transform them into machines of calculated pandemonium, whose noise is so merciless it’s blissful.


The concluding entry in his Ascension series, The Third Ascension premiered at New York’s famed art space the Kitchen in February 2016, where Branca and his ensemble were recorded for this very album. Branca, dressed in his trademark black duster and slacks, flailed around the stage as he conducted for bass, drums, and four guitars (one of which was played by his wife, Reg Bloor). His movements were spasmodic, and he occasionally shimmied his hips like a beleaguered Elvis. He grumbled between songs, brief quips about the best hot dog he’d ever eaten, or a dig at John Zorn. He kept his sheet music in a plastic shopping bag, which, if memory serves, had a yellow smiley face on the front. It was the only concert I’d ever been to where earplugs were forcefully handed out at the entrance, like safety goggles at a gun range.

Branca was known to say that if you didn’t like loud music, you shouldn’t bother with his. At live performances, you had no option regarding volume. When it comes to his albums, you unfortunately do. But heed the man’s words: The Third Ascension should be played at full blast, neighbors and landlords be damned. One of the most exhilarating aspects of Branca’s music is the amount of aural hallucination it inspires—a frequent side effect of listening to his work is hearing things that aren’t really there. “The Smoke,” a 16-minute odyssey that kicks off like the opening credits in a western film, eventually bursts into a fit of distortion, and it appears as though a synthesizer simulating gale-force winds has been added to the mix. On closing opus “Cold Thing,” Branca’s guitar quartet sounds like a squad of machine guns firing at point blank range, and yet the continued roar somehow registers as distant screaming, air raid sirens, and a choir of angels all at once.

This psychoacoustic mindfuck is all part of the plan. “I want you to be confused,” Branca once said of his audience. “Because if you become a little confused, then you’re not sure what you’re hearing, and that’s the point at which you can start thinking about what you’re hearing, and you can start creating what you’re hearing.” The Third Ascension, much like Branca’s masterpieces The Ascension and Lesson No. 1, is a shrine to ecstatic disorientation. It is both exhausting and elating, so much so that the end of each song coincides with a deserved deep breath.

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Branca’s work has always been as much of a physical experience as a musical one, and The Third Ascension continues that tradition beautifully. The high-frequency guitar riffs piercing through “Twisting in Space” feel like individual pin pricks, and the dueling rhythms in “Lesson No. 4” might as well be a series of 2x4s bashing you in the face. It’s a glorious, numbing assault.

Glenn Branca did not like the word “transcendence,” but he knew that was the ultimate goal. “I want everything in the world, in every minute of every piece,” he once said. “I want to create a small universe on that stage, and take you off of this earth, into a place that isn’t this fucking shithole.” Branca has finally escaped. Consider The Third Ascension his parting gift.


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