this must be the place....goin strong , yeah baby!!!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Musicnerd Homework One: The Ascension

I'm announcing an intent to start this new "Musicnerd Homework" series where I talk about those albums you're supposed to have heard / you say you've heard somewhere but you're not sure - didn't really - probably just thought you should be paying attention / you know it's a touchstone and will refer to it out of respect. The title comes from a review I read about the reissue of Pylon's "Gyrate" record, where the reviewer said that the release pushed Pylon's music out of the category of "hipster homework" and into the contemporary consciousness.

Assignment one: Glenn Branca - "The Ascension"


I am listening to "The Ascension" in full via the Lala music players that P'fork has decided to include in the sidebars of their record reviews now (it's a great move). With the anticipation of experiencing an album that will basically have a perfect rating anywhere you read about it, it is tempting to just be all, oh ok, so I have to think this is amazing too? It's seminal beyond seminal, apparently Sonic Youth's inspiration and all that, and from one listen it's obvious why that's the case. Surely this album has been analyzed to hell as an avant-garde masterpiece and whatever but it made me consider some fundamentals about music and how I relate to it.

For starters it made me think of something that happened to me a few years ago, brought on by a phone conversation I had. Tonight I talked to my good buddy Cody Logan on the phone. Ever since I've met him it's been clear to me that he's an archetype of the "Classic Rock only" fandude. I always think of him whenever Yes is mentioned or heard -- it's his favorite band. He is really opinionated about what he enjoys, too. He alludes to the better days of music in the sixties and seventies, claiming stuff's only gone downhill since. You know, he's of the kind that can't be bothered with the current state of pop/radio, that thinks punk rock was awful for its dumbing down of the notions of virtuosity etc.etc. Part of me sympathizes with those claims, but I wanted to see if I could break him out of his shell by showing him some more contemporary stuff that would fit his taste. So, one day I'm with him at a hookah bar and I decide he should hear Mogwai's "Mogwai Fear Satan," a fairly 'proggy' track that I thought he'd be interested in, as it showed off where rock's been going in terms of post-rock sensibility. After explaining those theories to him I let him sink into the headphones plugged to my Ipod, and I thought I'd nailed it... He told me he was impressed with the atmosphere and sense of restraint going on throughout the song's long arc, and it felt new to him. However, he thought he'd get to dig into another Mogwai song if he kept the headphones on, and this was to his detriment, unfortunately, because mr. ipod decided to go randomly into "The Sad Punk" by Pixies... which, if you know the song, is a pretty jarring shift of tone -- that's probably even putting it lightly -- from the soundscapes of Mogwai. He threw the headphones off with a yell of shock. "What the fuck is that trash? How could Mogwai go into that?"

When I realized what had happened it was a pretty funny event, and it has come to be an inside joke between Cody and me. He hates Pixies because of that moment, which is just such a mishap (uh, cuz, can we all say they are A+ awesome) that I have repeatedly vowed to convince Cody that they're great, and that punk is great, somehow someday. He still remains unconvinced.

But, my appreciation for the ideas of punk and the sound of Pixies versus Cody's standards serves as a good backdrop to what I think is at stake in an album like "The Ascension." Old techniques and instruments, new ideas and output. It's a rock combo on record that goes way beyond the sound of something like The Rolling Stones, which is basically the way I try to describe Post-rock. But at the end of the day it is, essentially, a very rock n' roll record. It grooves and relishes in the sound of guitars, but instead of attacking via melody it overwhelms with tenacious attitude, ominous discordant riffing, and a primal, unrelenting pulse.

It makes me think about the value of knowing how to play an instrument in a tuneful way. See, I was in a band where I would occasionally noodle around to make some melodies happen, but wanted to thrash into distorted reverb codas like I'd heard Yo La Tengo or Sonic Youth do... It seemed acceptable, people liked that sound if the records were held in high esteem, so maybe a good solo wasn't worth my time. However I remember I always felt like it was a copout when push came to shove and I was onstage hitting my guitar with a drumstick a la Lee Renaldo.

In a meta-theoretical way, I think that noise music occupies a space in the spectrum of sound that can really bring out emotions that melody, like in the very traditional common-sense meaning, otherwise does not (or maybe cannot) touch. Maybe with the exception of Xiu Xiu (someone who elicits fear and discomfort through sheer art-damaged dying kid outbursts, arrangements, or weird lyricism, bringing the listener his special brand of ennui), or some other people you might want to name, most popsters out there will resolve their melodies and bring you some kind of positive vibe. But if you are out to shock and be shrill, there's a whole tradition of dissonance in popular music that seems like some elite party to me. I felt stupid doing it when I did it myself but it was invigorating to see Sonic Youth destroy instruments. Perhaps this is pure starstruck syndrome. Maybe you have to have a following already before you do something abrasive, and then critics will say you have put out music that has "alienated your fanbase" or "middle-fingered the status quo." Whether or not you'll get a positive verdict for doing so is whimsy.

A composer using his name to direct an art-rock ensemble seems to me to be one way to get people to listen, I guess. I recently talked about how much I respected Scott Walker for being able to control the chaos on his "The Drift," and I am not backing away from that claim, but... what if I went out one day to record percussion sounds by punching a slab of meat? (Edit: I realized that not everyone is going to know that Scott Walker evidently did do this for sounds on "The Drift") Would you call my parents? Think of how weird and bloody I'd look with like a set of scrubs and maybe latex gloves. Pretty insane.

In the same way that chaos control happened with Scott Walker, I guess I have to admit that Glenn Branca is a similar stylist. I just wonder sometimes if the notes from a song like "Structure," definitely my favorite track on the album I'm talking about, were picked out by Branca telling his guitar army to find random tones that ascend and descend in a certain pattern from different parts of the neck, and then instruct them try to play them over and over in time with the drums. Bullshit or genius? Such is the problem of noise music, I suppose.

Gonna go listen to US Maple's "Acre Thrills" now, which I bought on vinyl in high school so I could be really cool and pretentious... listening to it only like once every three years.. Not going to figure anything out.

I love you all

No comments:

Post a Comment