Review Summary: The Ascension will change the way you hear guitars.
"If I was a composition teacher, this is what I would teach my students. I would probably give them very difficult and strange types of sound-making devices, and say, “Make me a piece of music with this.” Two-by-fours, pipes, I don’t know, whatever, because I don’t think the music is about the instrument. I think it’s about the mind. The mind creates the music. Not the instrument. Not even the musician."
From the bass intro to Lesson No. 2 to the final tremolo-picked guitars and psychotic drums of the title track, Glenn Branca’s The Ascension is an unrelenting aural assault. Branca was originally involved in New York’s “no wave” scene, and this is no wave’s magnum opus; a forty-two minute exploration of the capabilities of guitars. While much of Branca’s later work is composed for an orchestra of up to a hundred guitars, The Ascension showcases a smaller ensemble. Branca’s later work also revolves around an odd tuning system revolving around harmonics - for his third symphony, Gloria, he received a grant to build instruments that would function in this harmonic tuning system. The Ascension, however, is all about pushing the absolute bounds of guitar music. The buzzsaw tones presented throughout the album are ugly and confrontational, and during intense dissonant sections like the first four or five minutes of The Spectacular Commodity, Branca’s composition sounds almost like a horror soundtrack.
However, those who forge on through the discordant twelve-minute epic that is The Spectacular Commodity will be rewarded by some of the craziest riffing in history, as well as a key change so beautiful it demands myriad rewindings. The most incredible aspect of this is how utterly Godspeed You! Black Emperor the song is, both in structure and sound - and this was released sixteen years before the post-rock titans dropped their seminal LP F# A# Infinity.
The Spectacular Commodity is a strong contender for best song on the album, but that’s not to say the other songs are slackers by any means. Intro track Lesson No. 2 (a counterpoint to Branca’s earlier EP Lesson No. 1 for Electric Guitar) displays an evil-sounding buildup before abruptly collapsing into aggressive chordal attacks, while three-minute interlude Structure begins with a 5/4 riff that seems innocent at first, but is quickly and efficiently corrupted into a terrifying squealing, with tense chords pounding out underneath as the drumming gets more and more frantic. Structure boasts a very organic structure, and the buildup is subtle yet effective. The other two tracks are on the lengthier side, but Branca never resorts to flaccid repetition or weak songwriting. Light Field (In Consonance) carries itself with rollicking slips and slides through a three act odyssey of tremolo picking and quietly plucked harmonics before culminating in a life-affirming reprisal of the first two movements. The titular closing track cycles through a wide range of dynamics before gliding through a cacophonous, almost shoegazy section and finally showcasing frenzied drums and drawn-out tremolo picked notes.
Simply put, The Ascension is experimental music at its finest. No wave’s finest album is one of the most influential works of guitar music, exhibiting glimpses of post-rock, shoegaze, and even black metal, while remaining firmly entrenched in noise rock. The Ascension is an absolute necessity for anyone who wants to hear guitars pushed to their limits.