Pioneering avant-garde guitarist and composer Glenn Branca died Sunday night, as reported by his wife, longtime collaborator and ensemble member Reg Bloor. He was 69.
Branca is perhaps best known as a member of New York’s very short-lived no wave scene, which aimed to emancipate punk from the aesthetic trappings of rock ‘n’ roll. While The Ramones and the New York Dolls brought punk to the public as basically rebranded, updated hippies, Branca and his cohorts had other plans. By treating listeners to endless drones, austere classical moves or prepared instruments like screwdrivers stuck in guitar strings, Glenn Branca’s basic M.O. never wavered in his decades-long career. And some of the young noisemakers he had in his madcap ensembles — Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo, Michael Gira — were listening.
Branca’s stunning body of work more than stands up on its own terms, but a crucial part of his story is also how his unique sound filtered all the way into stadiums, to MTV, to rock radio. As his followers found ways to integrate the avant-garde into a catchy rock anthem, a wave of mainstream music arose that nobody could have anticipated: perhaps a pop song meeting a hurricane of feedback.
In honor of Glenn Branca, whose fingerprints have been laid all over rock, classical and the avant-garde forever, here are six classic albums that, directly or indirectly, wouldn’t exist without him.
Glenn Branca — The Ascension (1981)
Sporting a title ripped off from both Oliver Messaien and John Coltrane and a tremendous album sleeve featuring a man dragging a dead body, The Ascension is as obstinate, noisy and wonderful a portal as any into Branca’s work. It also nods toward those who would drag his sound into the mainstream: Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo are both credited on the album sleeve in the guitar squall. A key element of the experimental sound was the harmonic results when you tune every string on an electric guitar to the same note, then turn that sucker up to 10. Michael Azerrad may have said it best in his book Our Band Could Be Your Life, in which a chapter is dedicated to Sonic Youth — “Cheap guitars sounded like cheap guitars. But bang a drumstick on a cheap Japanese Stratocaster copy in the right tuning, crank the amplifier to within an inch of its life, and it will sound like church bells.” To that end, The Ascension is the sound of little pitchers having big ears.
The Del-Byzanteens — Lies to Live By (1982)
Did you know Jim Jarmusch played in a no wave band in the early 1980s? A great one, too. The Del-Byzanteens, who were also joined onstage occasionally by the outrageous John Lurie, cut one classic underground LP in 1982, Lies to Live By. The band’s co-leader Phil Kline also moonlighted as an early member of Glenn Branca’s ensemble. While the Del-Byzanteens’ sound is on the very pop end of the movement in question, just listen to those droning, unpredictable progressions just under the surface. It’s pure Branca.
Helmet — Strap It On (1990)
Out of everyone who cut their noisemaking chops under Branca’s tutelage, it was Page Hamilton, who also played in Branca’s ensembles early on, who headed in the most “alternative metal” direction of them all with Helmet. But the effect that Branca would have on even the band’s more simple, propulsive material couldn’t be overstated. In a revealing interview with Ultimate Guitar, Hamilton explained it thusly: “My mentor used to say the upper tertials where things were happening. You heard it in Glenn Branca’s music. I was so interested in the rhythm thing that a lot of times that stuff would only appear in my solos. Then suddenly it became part of the arrangement of the song.” Thanks in part to Branca’s outside-the-box compositional style, plenty of ‘90s riffers would never look at their fretboard the same way.
Sonic Youth — Dirty (1992)
Branca was always very aware of the possibilities of his experimental sound and how it could be channeled to a new generation of artists. Revealingly, he said this about his biggest acolytes: “Sonic Youth gave [people] what I had, but sugarcoated it. They knew I’d come up with all these incredibly cool sounds that could be used in the context of a rock song. At the time I wasn’t going to do that.” And their second album for DGC Records, Dirty, was the most sugarcoated of them all — hey, insert your own joke about “Sugar Kane” or “Crème Brûlée.” Thankfully, the band couldn’t shake their roots even in the poppiest moments; listen closely and you’ll hear that old squall.
Nirvana — In Utero (1993)
Kurt Cobain never directly cited or name-dropped Glenn Branca as an influence. But what’s so important is that Sonic Youth did, endlessly. And Cobain had been a huge Sonic Youth fan ever since the band’s co-leader Kim Gordon first spied backstage, describing the Nirvana leader as having “big, watery eyes … slightly hunted looking.” Sonic Youth sort of acted as Nirvana’s cool older siblings in those days, taking them on tour and helping them get signed to DGC Records. Nirvana’s final album, In Utero, featured some of the group’s most gorgeous ballads meeting some of its most harrowing, soulful guitar meltdowns — and it’s hard to believe Kurt letting that side of his “guitar thinking” fly so atonally and soulfully if not for what members of Sonic Youth absorbed in those musty New York clubs in Glenn Branca’s guitar ensemble. It bears repeating that you’re not going to easily find any examples of Kurt talking about Branca directly, but In Utero’s inclusion here goes beyond that — one only need to hear 10 seconds of “Milk It” or “Scentless Apprentice” to understand it as a soul transference.
Swans — To Be Kind (2014)
The Michael Gira-led noise pioneers’ latest incarnation is the one that has most sharply divided its noisenik fanbase, with NPR-ready indie stars like Low, St. Vincent and Karen O dropping by to sing duets. But To Be Kind is chosen for this list above early Swans albums like Filth or Cop or Greed just for its proximity in time; it shows how far Branca’s influence extends. For the sometimes-sneering that sometimes happens about To Be Kind’s accessibility, it’s one hell of an inaccessible listen to ever hit the upper reaches of the Billboard 200. And every time it reaches some new, squalling climax, it’s hard not to think of Gira and guitarist Norman Westberg at the feet of Branca back in the ‘80s, absorbing alongside Moore and Ranaldo and Gordon and the rest that there really is a blissful, stratospheric point where noise can actually beget beauty. It’s a racket that will go on forever.