Review: Glenn Branca – The Third Ascension (Systems Neutralizers, Oct 4)

The music world lost a truly great artist last year with the death of contemporary composer Glenn Branca. With a formidable career spanning from 1980 until his death in 2018, Branca’s work explored and stretched the possibilities of rock guitar in a classical context throughout various symphonies and live performances, but he is perhaps best known for his 1981 LP The Ascension. Serving as a meticulously arranged counterpoint to the irreverent, improvised chaos of the no wave movement with which it was closely associated, the landmark recording transposed a slightly expanded standard rock music lineup (four guitars, bass guitar, drum set) into Branca’s peerless ear for texture, dynamic progression, and catharsis. It’s indisputably one of the most influential guitar albums ever released. But unfortunately for listeners who seek more of this singular sound, there’s not a ton of material available; Branca’s 1980 EP Lesson No. 1 is fantastic and serves as a great companion to The Ascension, but apart from that there’s only 2010’s The Ascension: The Sequel in terms of legendary sextet brilliance, which for many (including me) fell flat.

Now, however, the posthumous release of The Third Ascension offers a breathtaking return to form. The six track, 65 minute album documents a 2016 live performance by the Branca Ensemble—is that enough sixes for you?—and recaptures everything with which I fell in love when I first heard its original predecessor. A better opener than “Velvets and Pearls” couldn’t have been picked; it starts things off with an incendiary motorik groove that immediately immerses. Though throughout the rest of the album the guitar interplay becomes more elaborate and intricate, here the players are in wondrous tonal solidarity, evoking the trance-inducing propulsion of “The Spectacular Commodity.” From there, the elements only evolve further: there’s the mesmerizing dissonant jangle of “German Expressionism,” the indescribably powerful climax of “The Smoke,” the anxious tremolo cacophonies of “Lesson No. 4″…. I could go on. I’m not sure if there are any plans for future releases under Branca’s name, but if not, this is a perfect final statement that is sure to both resonate with longtime fans as well as introduce new listeners to the legendary composer’s oeuvre.

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