Glenn Branca Ascends Anew
It's no shocker that Glenn Branca—No Wave architect, composer of 13 cacophonic symphonies, avant-garde iconoclastic godhead—has his gnarly vices. He downs oceans of booze, isn't partial to a razor, tolerates zero shit, and smokes incessantly. Not the ideal candidate to join the über-rad rock-couple pantheon with such model citizens as Thurston & Kim, or Georgia & Ira. But Branca's wife and musician counterpart, Reg Bloor, has given rise to an uncharacteristic sweetness.
"She's my baby, and we're partners," explains the ex-Static and Theoretical Girls leader of his petite, angelic-faced partner, who shares his love of guitar butchery. "This is our gig. . . . This is what we do. I could never in a million years do all of this myself. We gotta be the most compatible couple. . ." Bloor cuts in and finishes the thought: ". . . to live in a 350-square-foot apartment."
Housed in a studio walk-up submerged in books floor-to-ceiling, Branca and Bloor must indeed be soulmates to dwell together in such obscene clutter—with a cat, no less. The two have been inseparable for a decade, when a fledgling Bloor approached Branca post-gig outside the old Knitting Factory, offering to help him schlep equipment to his truck. The volatile composer—who so incensed experimental patriarch John Cage that he angrily likened Branca's 1982 piece Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses to fascism—was smitten.
As it turns out, the two already had a bond. "I used to have a mail-order book service," he recalls. "Reg was buying cyberpunk books from me. She was one of my customers. Often, people outside of New York would hang out and look at what I was selling. I didn't know she was a woman because her name was Reg, and assumed she was some potbellied English guy. So, when she showed up at my door, I recognized her as the beautiful woman from the Knit and was shocked out of my mind. I wasn't attached, and she wasn't either, so we got it on, man."
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Branca has been getting it on since he cemented himself as a Soho staple in the late-'70s, artist-deluged, shithole-era downtown scene: feuding with the East Village No Wavers, schooling fellow guitar-orchestra guru Rhys Chatham, and ultimately subverting both conventional tunings and rock's whole aesthetic with his 1981 classical-music-damaged, histrionic-rock masterpiece, The Ascension. It remains Branca's most popular album, one that profusely bled yesteryear New York's glossy lights and cruddy squalor—a combo original Ascension guitarist Lee Ranaldo undoubtedly took back to the Sonic Youth camp and built a 30-year career (and counting) template on.
Meanwhile, at the time of The Ascension, Bloor was coloring in kindergarten. Now she's part of Branca's new Ensemble (neither Ranaldo, nor any of the original players, are along for the ride this time; reunions are admittedly not Branca's style "unless someone wants to come up with a massive amount of money"), taking cues from her husband conductor (he rarely plays guitar live) and helping engineer his recent resurgence . . . by revisiting ground that's gone untouched for three decades. The Ascension: The Sequel—Branca's first new album in 12 years, and first with a small band since the '80s—is his balls-out rock record. And even as a minimalist prodigy, he's embracing the cliché inherent in the title.
"That was the idea: It's the sequel, it's old-school, and it kicks ass," Branca says of this new work's behemoth crunch, obvious from the opening three-minute ecstatic shred of "The Tone Row That Ruled the World," the infectiously coiled mind-meld "Lesson No. 3 (Tribute to Steve Reich)," and the 20-minute cataclysmic trip "The Blood." "Sonic Youth captured my sound pretty good as a quartet, and I usually work with large ensembles, so I was surprised that four guitars, bass, and drums were able to get such a big, beautiful sound."
"I like it," Branca concludes. "I wouldn't fuckin' release it if I didn't."
While The Sequel is no mere retread, even Branca was floored by the freaky happenstances: "I was thinking, 'I wonder if James Farber is still around,' " Branca recalls. "He engineered the original Ascension and created its sound. I went online and found him at a studio called Avatar. So we went there and did it with James." Since Branca's memory is out the window, it got even more bizarre: "The Power Station was where we recorded The Ascension," he recalls. "And I didn't know Avatar was actually the Power Station. James said, 'By the way, you know this is the same room we recorded The Ascension in?' I didn't recognize the room—it was so many years ago." Another revelation: "Why not call Robert Longo, who did the [original Ascension] art? So we've got the Longo cover, the same guy who engineered the original, and we recorded The Sequel in the same room with the same instrumentation."
When it was time to decide how to release this spin-off, Branca's disdain for record labels stirred up the past once again. In the '80s, he ran Neutral Records, but was shackled by the tastes of outside funders. No longer. He has revived the imprint, under his complete (read: financial) control. Neutral now goes by its original name—Systems Neutralizers—with The Sequel as its first release. "I figured I can do it now because I don't give a shit anymore," Branca says bluntly. "People can like it or not. . . . I'm not out there to build an audience. I'm 61 years old, for fuck's sake. But still . . . to the day I die . . . I am gonna be writing music."
The Glenn Branca Ensemble plays (le) poisson rouge February 27
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