By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Watching the 1984 performance of "Symphony No. 5" on the CD-Rom footage that accompanies this reissue, it's easy to see how Glenn Branca was a different cut of composer. Forgoing a baton (it would only gouge an eye out), he directs an ensemble of guitar, organ, metallophones, and drums, conducting the way a live wire does, crackling with unfettered electricity. Flailing along with the music, Branca moves like a Miami Vice drug dealer in a slo-mo Uzi mow-down (peep the early-'80s sports jacket), or an Aerosmith-loving air guitarist nailed to a third rail. The energy shooting through his body is palpable, charging the performance even as 12 musicians stand stock still before him, focused on the music's demands.
That same power audibly courses through these three audio tracks (spanning 1980-82), documenting Branca's early attempts to marry thuggish Bowery punk with lofty compositional conceits. The eight-minute "Lesson No.1" stands as a monolith among the rest of the no-wave scene's one-minute shards. These strafes of open-tuned guitars from Branca and Michael Gross continue to ring out nearly 25 years on, paterfamilias to dirgy guitar groups from Sonic Youth to Godspeed You! Black Emperor. The first recording of a no wave instrumental composition, "No. 1" features churning overtones that vaguely invoke "Love Will Tear Us Apart," Glenn's obsession at the time.
The other two pieces show a less monochord/monolithic side, as "Dissonance" finds Branca's overdubbed guitars jagging upward like an Ennio Morricone-scored Metropolis. These same malevolent guitars get down with the shockingly funky middle break of "Bad Smells," a plexus of downtown musical strands that was originally scored for a Twyla Tharp dance performance and issued as the flip side to a John Giorno spoken-word record in 1982. The twitching rhythms suggest Was (Not Was) and James Blood Ulmer, but the five guitarists, including Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, revel in the darker side of the naked city, sinister and slashing.
As the Alan Licht-penned liner notes attest, "Bad Smells" is the closest Branca got to the jump cuts of peer John Zorn. (Keyboardist Anthony Coleman, a mainstay for both Zorn and Marc Ribot, appears on Branca's earlier pieces.) Such disparate luminaries all get focused by Branca's laser-like intensity, and despite two decades' worth of assimilation and dilution into alternative rock's guitar vernacular, his molten rock core still smolders with a fierce light.