Saturday, January 15, 2011

Continuing the 2010 roundup

Two notable releases that I didn't hear until 2011 ...

Glenn Branca, "The Ascension: The Sequel". How in the hell did I miss out on hearing the "sequel" to one of my favourite albums of the 80's? Branca's M.O. hasn't changed much in the past 30 years, which is another way of saying that the blueprint he laid out for himself in the late 70's still sounds as heavy and as powerful now as it likely did then. But even so, I was surprised at how much this resembled a real, credible sequel. Not some tired retread where the artist writes an essay in the liner notes about how he tried to recapture the spirit of the original using newfangled studio tricks that he wished had been available to him at the time, but a work whose turn-back-the-clock-ness is uncannily similar to something that he could have conceived and recorded in 1982.

Even his new ensemble does a remarkable job at capturing the manic energy of the legendary combo that recorded the original "The Ascension". The exception would be drummer Libby Fab, who can't match Stephen Wischerth's raw force and his ability to somehow play above the rest of the ensemble. I think that Branca's larger ensemble works, in particular the symphony for 100 guitars, de-mythologized the role of the guitarists in his music. When he can put out open calls for guitarists and rehearse them into performance-ready shape in a couple of afternoons, it does a lot to detract from the idea of the guitarist as virtuoso talent. Instead, it's like almost anyone can join, provided they allow themselves to be plugged into Branca's formula. Where you can't get away with all this plug-and-play musician swapping is with the drummer (guys like Phil Spector certainly understood this. He only needed one Hal Blaine).

The music is pretty good too! "Lesson No. 3 (Tribute to Steve Reich)" is the only track that comes close to matching to intensity of the second half of the original album, although even then, the coda is a bit a letdown compared to the build up. This is a problem with the album's other epic track, the huge 19-minute "The Blood" -- Branca knows how to get there but he's not sure what to do when he arrives. It's not fair to complain that "The Sequel" doesn't measure up to "The Ascension" -- what can?? -- but it's and the best thing I've heard from Branca in a long time, and is more than worthy of adopting the name.

Actress, "Splazsh". I "get" this album, at least I think I do. It definitely doesn't sound like most techno albums, it's equal parts hi-fi gloss and lo-fi samples, equal parts jacking beats and chugging Krautrock rhythms, perfectly at home borrowing from the 70's both dirty funk and prog rock synths. When you try to describe it, it seems like an important, original album. The problem is that it's just not all that good.

Don't get me wrong, it's good. But there's a problem when the first two minutes of every song are the best two minutes and there isn't enough substance to hold my attention through the rest of the track. "Purple Splazsh" is an homage to Prince, and cuts right to the heart of my criticism. What's not to like about the idea of techno that is meant to sound exactly like Prince? After all, isn't techno supposed to be Kraftwerk and P-Funk stuck in an elevator? Where would Prince have been without P-Funk? On the other hand, if it was such a great idea, wouldn't everyone have been doing it years ago? Somehow, the joke gets lost in the translation. "Supreme Cunnilingus", on the other hand, was never a good idea in the first place.

There are plenty of highlights though ... plenty of words have already been written about "Maze", and I love how it captures the woozy qualities of Kraftwerk's "Radioactivity", arguably their most atmospheric and underrated album. "Hubble" is what Fluxion should have been doing on his post-comeback albums, rather than rehashing the music he was making in 1999-2000 in order to seamlessly jump back onto the dub techno train. The concept behind "Bubble Butts and Equations" is brilliant -- distorted, lo-fi bass and hi-hats with shrill and clear beeps and whistles to carry the melody. I badly want to hear a whole album of stuff that sounds just like this. If he'd nailed the execution behind the concept then we might have had a classic on our hands.

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