Glenn Branca's first release of his sprawling guitar symphonies, Lesson No. 1, is glossy compared to some of his later work -- and is, admittedly by Branca, an exercise in rock minimalism. With a smaller band -- only two guitars, organ, bass, and drums, in the case of "Lesson No. 1" -- Branca turns chiming guitars and a repetitive organ groove into a cascade of utopian sound, updating the work of La Monte Young as futuristic ecstatic ritual. In this case, the guitars are almost new wave, and remarkably similar to the dark and syrupy dance rock of Joy Division -- which Branca was reportedly listening to frequently at the time. Things take a sharp turn, though, with "Dissonance," a piercing and uncomfortable track of horror and industrial intensity -- the would-be collapse of the Romanticism built on the first piece. Two minutes into the 11-minute composition comes a commanding pummel that will undoubtedly sound familiar to fans of Sonic Youth who, after all, drew heavily on Branca's uncompromising assaults and disorienting detunings. The 16-minute "Bad Smells," which features Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore, is a transitional Branca piece, but also his most unpredictable, skipping from a film-soundtrack gallop to spacious guitar constructions to jerky, no-wave punk funk rhythms and, finally, captivating ambience. Certainly a record that establishes Branca as the '80s NYC force to be reckoned with, it also shows the great rock scope of Branca's composing -- in contrast to Rhys Chatham -- and illuminates nearly all of the generic modes which he would develop and draw upon in his future work.
Lesson No. 1 Review
by Charles Spano