Glenn Branca Lesson No. 1

[Acute; 2004]

Styles: post-rock, minimalism, experimental rock, microtonal
Others: Sonic Youth, Philip Glass, Yona-Kit, Bang on a Can

In the 1980s, there began a massive restoration project to bring New York from its abject, whorish state to the super-capitalized, civilized state it is now in. Politics aside, it is clear that the New York that once was is long gone. It was that New York that was the New York of the Velvets, of Glenn Branca, of Sonic Youth, and of the best rap ever to come out of three Jewish kids. It was the heart of Travis Bickle's lament in Taxi Driver. New York's then miserable state was key for the music that would come out of it. It is perhaps why The Strokes, as hard as they try, cannot ever capture the essence of VU (what's cool about waiting for your man in the middle of Times Square drinking a Frappucino?), and why, perhaps, nothing will come close to capturing what Glenn Branca captured on his first few recordings.

The problem with any Glenn Branca recording, though, is that if -- and this is likely the case -- you've only heard Glenn's work after becoming obsessed with Sonic Youth, you're likely to comment on how much Glenn Branca sounds like Sonic Youth, instead of the other way around. "Lesson No. 1 for Electric Guitar" foreshadows the jangled, droning, oddly pop-like guitars of Daydream Nation, and the opening chord of "Dissonance” appears fit to kick off almost any SY song. The fact alone that a single two-song release would go so far in influencing so much of the experimentally-inclined artists to follow makes Lesson No. 1 an essential recording.

Like all of Branca's work, these aren't so much songs as they are symphonies, the classical music of the 22nd century. "Lesson no. 1 for Electric Guitar" sounds nothing like "Dissonance," yet they play off each other in a way that can only be described as harrowingly perfect. The former piece, as I have mentioned, is almost a pop song at times. Multiple guitars drone on without so much as a major change for the entire duration of the piece; a floor tom, whose accents are scattered on alternating stereo channels, occasional (and I use the term strictly) cymbal crashes, and a bass are the only instruments that bring forth any sort of momentum change. Yet it builds, and by the end of the piece it swells. It is but the exposition, however, of a story whose true monsters have yet to be introduced.

The complete disarray and brusqueness of "Dissonance" is only magnified by the relative-gentleness of what preceded it. If "Lesson no. 1 for Electric Guitars" showed you the gates of Glenn's mind, "Dissonance" takes you to the control room. Much like "Lesson no. 2" (off the equally astounding The Ascension), the sound is almost primal at times, like the deranged sounds running through the head of a man fleeing from his death by an unknown creature in the jungle. The first half could have easily been seen as an experiment in rock music, but to call "Dissonance" mere experimental-rock would be an understatement to say the least. More like a free-jazz piece gone wonderfully awry, it enters a realm of music that not even Sonic Youth has entered.

When asked about the milestone of jazz that was Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, drummer Jimmy Cobb said, "it must have been made in heaven." Such a response is certainly suiting, but as far as Lesson No. 1 is concerned, the hell that was New York could not have been done without.

1. Lesson no. 1 for Electric Guitar
2. Dissonance

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