The Ascension (Glenn Branca album)

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The Ascension
Studio album by
GenreNo wave, modern classical, totalism[1]
ProducerEd Bahlman
Glenn Branca chronology
Lesson No. 1
The Ascension
Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses

The Ascension is the debut studio album by American no wave musician Glenn Branca, released in 1981 by 99 Records. The album experiments with resonances generated by alternate tunings for multiple electric guitars. It sold 10,000 copies and received acclaim from music critics.


Branca wanted to explore the resonances generated when guitar strings tuned to the same note were played at high volumes. He assembled the Ascension Band with four electric guitarists, one bassist, and one drummer. The group included guitarist Lee Ranaldo, who later joined alternative rock band Sonic Youth.[2] The group's bass player knew the owner and engineers at The Power Station, so they were able to use it at little cost. They recorded five pieces in between tours for Branca's debut EP Lesson No. 1.[3] "The Spectacular Commodity" was written before the songs on Lesson No. 1, originating as a dance piece for Branca's band the Static.[3][4]

The album's title was chosen as a continuation of works by Olivier Messiaen and John Coltrane.[5] Its iconic black-and-white cover artwork is by painter Robert Longo. It comes from Longo's "Men in the Cities" series, which depicts well-dressed young professionals in contorted poses.[6][7] The cover shows Branca in a suit, dragging the dead body of another man. Branca has stated that he wanted to show two men having sex; instead, he asked Longo to "make an implication of this."[3]


Opening track "Lesson No. 2" starts with a bass riff.[6] It builds with tom-tom drums and four guitars, amplified with buzzing feedback.[6][9] It devolves into a drumbeat with dissonant blasts of guitar. "The Spectacular Commodity" takes its name from situationist theory. The song moves through various tempos with three guitars playing in different octaves, bass, and drums. The climax occurs nine minutes into the track, as one guitar plays high open chords and the other two act as accompaniment. "Structure" is built around repeated harmonics.[6]

"Light Fields (In Consonance)" begins by constructing rhythms out of one-note patterns. Toward its conclusion, the figures begin ascending into octave scales. The title track uses the overtones from excessive guitar feedback.[6] They form a dense, chaotic soundscape that continually rises.[3]

Critical reception[edit]

Professional ratings
Review scores
AllMusic4.5/5 stars[8]
Mojo4/5 stars[10]
Spin Alternative Record Guide8/10[13]
Uncut5/5 stars[14]
The Village VoiceB[15]

Upon its initial release, The Ascension received positive reviews from music critics.[16] In a review for The New York Times, John Rockwell wrote that The Ascension did a better job than Lesson No. 1 of capturing the impact of Branca's live concerts but that "his work may be too grand and loud ever to be captured on disk."[17] It ranked the album 6th on its list of the best albums of 1981.[18] Kristine McKenna wrote in the Los Angeles Times that the album "does a surprisingly good job of conveying the awesome power of his live performance…[it] lacks the glorious dimension of Branca's live show, but is good enough to serve as an introduction to a major new talent."[19] The Village Voice writer Robert Christgau described the album as "great sonically" but continued that "the beat's overstated and the sense of structure…mired in nineteenth-century corn."[15] In the 1981 Pazz & Jop list, compiled by Christgau based on a survey of several hundred critics, The Ascension placed 51st.[20]

Since its original release, the album has garnered critical acclaim. Pitchfork Media awarded it a perfect 10.0 score.[9] XLR8R commented that "if these recordings pale in comparison to the live experience, [they] are no less rapturous for it."[21] AllMusic called it "one of the greatest rock albums ever made", adding that its "sonic experimentation" was more in the tradition of avant-garde musicians La Monte Young and Phill Niblock.[8] Tiny Mix Tapes said that The Ascension diverges from punk and classical traditions "as simply essential 20th-century music."[6] Fact magazine ranked the album 8th on its list of the best albums of the 1980s.[22]

Release and impact[edit]

The Ascension was released through Ed Bahlman's label 99 Records. Bahlman sold over 10,000 copies out of his shop on MacDougal Street in Manhattan, New York, and the vinyl copies became a rare collector's item.[8][23] Although the album was successful for an independent release, it did not receive any interest from major labels.[24] New Tone Records re-released the album on CD in 1999, and Acute Records re-released it in 2003 with old footage of Branca performing in the apartment of his Theoretical Girls bandmate Jeffrey Lohn.[8][25] The Ascension has remained Branca's most popular album.[26] Branca released a sequel titled The Ascension: The Sequel in 2010.[27] To do so, he re-established Neutral Records under its original name Systems Neutralizers.[26]

The Ascension influenced the work of Sonic Youth and Swans.[28] Kurt Kellison encountered the album in 1984 and said, "I haven't thought about music the same way ever since." After founding Atavistic Records, Kellison released some of Branca's later guitar symphonies.[29] In 2013, David Bowie included it in a list of 25 of his favourite albums, "Confessions of a Vinyl Junkie", saying that "over the years, Branca got even louder and more complex than this, but here on the title track his manifesto is already complete."[30]

Track listing[edit]

All tracks are written by Glenn Branca, except where noted.

Side one
1."Lesson No. 2"Glenn Branca, Jeffrey Glenn, Stephan Wischerth4:59
2."The Spectacular Commodity" 12:41
3."Structure" 3:00
Side two
1."Light Field (In Consonance)"8:17
2."The Ascension"13:10



  1. ^ Gann, Kyle (January 1, 2006). "Totalism as a New Rhythmic Paradigm". Arts Journal. Retrieved October 10, 2013.
  2. ^ Foege, Alec (April 9, 1995). "Maestro of the Off-Key Guitars". The New York Times. sec. 2, p. 34. Retrieved February 9, 2015.
  3. ^ a b c d Masters 2007, p. 129
  4. ^ Duckworth 1995, p. 431
  5. ^ Barry, Robert (April 24, 2013). "Rorschach Audio: Glenn Branca Discusses Reading, Writing & Volume". The Quietus. Retrieved February 8, 2015.
  6. ^ a b c d e f Mahoney, Brendan (February 5, 2009). "1981: Glenn Branca - The Ascension". Tiny Mix Tapes. Retrieved February 8, 2015.
  7. ^ Bruno, Franklin (May 7–13, 2004). "The avant hard". Boston Phoenix. Archived from the original on April 12, 2013. Retrieved February 9, 2015.
  8. ^ a b c d e Olewnick, Brian. "The Ascension – Glenn Branca". AllMusic. Retrieved February 8, 2015.
  9. ^ a b c Beta, Andy (June 19, 2003). "Glenn Branca: The Ascension". Pitchfork. Retrieved February 8, 2015.
  10. ^ Barnes, Mike (July 2003). "Glenn Branca: The Ascension". Mojo (116): 122.
  11. ^ Pattison, Louis (June 14, 2003). "Glenn Branca: The Ascension". NME. Retrieved February 8, 2015.
  12. ^ Mathers, Ian (February 2, 2015). "Glenn Branca: The Ascension". PopMatters. Retrieved February 8, 2015.
  13. ^ Weisbard, Eric; Marks, Craig, eds. (1995). Spin Alternative Record Guide. Vintage Books. ISBN 0-679-75574-8.
  14. ^ Allen, Jim (June 2003). "Glenn Branca: The Ascension". Uncut (73): 137.
  15. ^ a b Christgau, Robert (April 13, 1982). "Christgau's Consumer Guide". Retrieved February 8, 2015.
  16. ^ Sterritt, David (May 24, 1982). "Branca's radical music is claimed by two camps — rock and classical". The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved February 8, 2015.
  17. ^ Rockwell, John (November 8, 1981). "New York's Experimental Music Sounds Familiar Notes". The New York Times: A19. Retrieved February 8, 2015.
  18. ^ Palmer, Robert (December 30, 1981). "The Pop Life". The New York Times: C9. Retrieved February 8, 2015.
  19. ^ McKenna, Kristine (July 10, 1982). "Pop Beat: New York's Noise Bands". Los Angeles Times: E4.
  20. ^ Christgau, Robert (February 1, 1982). "The Year the Rolling Stones Lost the Pennant". The Village Voice. Retrieved February 8, 2015.
  21. ^ Georgopoulos, Alexis (July 4, 2003). "Glenn Branca The Ascension". XLR8R. Retrieved February 8, 2015.
  22. ^ "The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s". Fact. June 24, 2013. Retrieved February 9, 2015.
  23. ^ Foege 1994, p. 37
  24. ^ Masters 2007, p. 130
  25. ^ Chick 2009
  26. ^ a b Cohan, Brad (February 23, 2010). "Glenn Branca Ascends Anew". The Village Voice. Retrieved February 8, 2015.
  27. ^ Garratt, John (July 6, 2010). "Glenn Branca: The Ascension: The Sequel". PopMatters. Retrieved February 8, 2015.
  28. ^ Earles 2014, p. 49
  29. ^ Kot, Greg (February 5, 1995). "Transcendental Innovation". Chicago Tribune: 12. Retrieved February 8, 2015.
  30. ^


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