Our regular readers know there’s nothing we love here at TWBITW more than an incredibly specific high-concept band (see: Mac Sabbath, The Metal Shakespeare Company, etc.). So it’s about damned time we gave a little love to Okilly Dokilly, Arizona’s leading Ned Flanders-themed metal — or “nedal,” as they prefer to call it — five-piece.
Formed in 2015, Okilly Dokilly’s premise is simple: Take dialogue from Ned Flanders, the God-fearing, improbably buff next door neighborino from The Simpsons, and turn it into lyrics for epic heavy metal anthems, performed by five dudes in matching Flanderian green sweaters, round glasses and bushy mustaches. Since Flanders’ Christian kindness and relentless good cheer has always seemed like a front for a seething cauldron of repressed rage, it works surprisingly well. Here, take a gander.
To quote Ned: “What a rush! That got my blood pumping in a way I thought only quiet reflection could.”
I’m not really sure what else to tell you about Okilly Dokilly, except to note that their members are called Head Ned, Red Ned, Stead Ned, Thread Ned and Bled Ned, and they have an album out called Howdilly Doodilly, which is available now via Bandcamp or at your favorite neighborhood Leftorium. Oh, and they have one music video, for the song “White Wine Spritzer” — based on an obscure Ned quote from season 10. (To Okilly Dokilly’s credit, most of their Ned quotes are not the most obvious choices — though I do wish they’d turn my favorite outrageous Nedism from The Simpsons Movie into a Satanic dirge: “And I wish you didn’t have the devil’s curly hair!”)
P.S. Thanks to readers Dexter Storer and J (yeah, just J), among others, for turning us on to Okilly Dokilly’s heavy “nedal” thunder.
Doing this blog, I’m constantly amazed at how many talented musicians and producers out there release their stuff anonymously, with virtually no promotion or online presence beyond a Bandcamp account or Facebook page. Such is the case with Buttress O’Kneel, a mysterious Australian creator of what she calls “plunderphonic intellectronica” and “excruciating postcore compop.” According to the folks at the equally mysterious InterWebMegaLink, who introduced us to Ms. O’Kneel and her sample-heavy sonic experiments, she’s been cranking out this stuff since 1998 or so — but virtually no information on her exists online anywhere. No photos, no bio, no interviews. I’m totally taking InterWebMegaLink’s word for it that she is, in fact, a woman from Australia and not some aging ex-raver dude from, say, Bristol or Pittsburgh or some other hub for this sort of musical cut-and-paste geekery.
O’Kneel — or BOK, for short — has produced everything from “audio documentaries” on the history of fossil fuels and racism in Australia to compilations of damaged CDs skipping. But she seems to especially enjoy chopping, distorting, stretching and otherwise mangling popular music in clever, unexpected ways. Here, for example, is her take on Ariana Grande’s “No Tears Left to Cry,” called “Tentacles for Troy,” an anagram of the original song title. (“i get deep into anagrams as titles because it feels like a microcosmic reference to what i’m doing to the music – complete memetic rearrangement, from ostensibly recognisable shiz,” she explained in a recent Facebook post.) Bonus points to anyone who recognizes the Madonna sample in the intro.
Many of BOK’s sonic experiments will be familiar to anyone who’s explored the worlds of mashups and plunderphonics. She’s dabbled in time-stretching, for example, taking familiar songs like Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” and slowing them down until they’re transformed into ominous, oceanic exercises in abstract minimalism. But what makes BOK stand out, I think, is that she always takes these more familiar techniques one step further. In the case of time-stretching, she decided to see what would happen if she instead compressed a familiar song down to just a few seconds, then stretched it back to its original length. She calls the results “pop smears” and they’re kind of amazing:
More recently, she’s been experimenting with MP3-to-MIDI converters, which she discovered introduce weird atonal harmonics into the vocal melodies and make most of the rest track’s elements sound like an old-timey player piano having a seizure. (“It’s a godawful mess of misplayed piano garbage,” reads the Bandcamp description. “Either that, or it’s brilliant conceptual sound art! You decide!”) The process makes a familiar pop song like Camila Cabello’s “Havana” sound vaguely terrifying, but when applied just to an isolated vocal track from Metallica’s James Hetfield, there’s something kind of hilarious about it. It’s like Bartok on meth.
Speaking of Bartok: Even classical music is not safe from BOK’s undying love of warping the familiar beyond recognition. Here’s part of “The Four Four Seasons,” a relatively simple (by BOK’s convoluted standards) exercise in organized chaos that takes four different versions of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” and lays them on top of each other:
I’m tempted to just go on inserting Bandcamp links ad infinitum, because nearly everything Buttress O’Kneel does is interesting on some level. There’s “This Sick Beat,” which combines Taylor Swift with recordings of “pathological” heartbeats (a very plunderphonic-y response to Swift’s trademarking of the phrase “This Sick Beat”). There’s her field recording experiments with another mysterious producer named Panthera Leo, a project called The Fruiting Body that was allegedly recorded back around 2001 but was only just released earlier this year. There are albums on her Bandcamp page (so many albums) with intriguingly apt titles like Post-remix Retrostep, Shitcore and Hard Dadapop. It’s all great, and worth diving deep into if you have a day or two to kill and want to imagine a world in which Venetian Snares got on the mashup train back when that was a trendy thing.
But I’ll leave you with just two pieces of music that I think sum up, as much as it’s possible to sum up, the full spectrum of BOK’s brilliance. The first, “Merzbowie,” is exactly what it sounds like: a mashup of David Bowie and influential Japanese noise artist Merzbow, mixed live and then run through AudioMulch, an “interactive modular” software suite that is apparently one of Buttress’ favorite tools. The results are pretty much exactly what you’d expect and sort of mesmerizing, although it’s probably not coincidence that one my cats puked three times while I was playing it.
Contrast that with “Breaking Windows,” an ambient electronic track that uses nothing but default Windows sounds to build something unexpectedly beautiful. The accompanying video is pretty fun, too.
So who is Buttress O’Kneel? I still have no idea, but I hope more people discover her endlessly inventive music.
I think we can all agree that when it comes to cool instruments, the recorder is pretty low on the list. Not to say the little flute-like rascals aren’t delightful, especially when played by small children or wandering minstrels. But no one ever piped out an old folk tune on a recorder and thought to themselves, “This is totally gonna get me laid.”
Maybe that’s why, when French electronic music label Ed Banger Records released a video last December from a mysterious artist named Vladimir Cauchemar that featured a middle-aged man in a red turtleneck rocking a recorder to a sneakily infectious house beat, it got shared more widely than a Netflix password. As of this writing, the video for “Aulos” is closing in on 4 million views, which might be 3.9 million more times than anyone has watched anyone do anything with a recorder — unless “recorder porn” is a thing and no, we are definitely not Googling the words “recorder porn” to find out.
No one really knew anything about the identity of the artist behind “Aulos” when it first came out, and seven months later, that’s still pretty much true. The bio on his Ed Banger page simply reads, “Vladimir Cauchemar is an enigma to all of us.” The images on his Facebook page show a man DJing and posing in various industrial spaces wearing a skull mask. The only interview he’s given so far is in Japanese. Thanks to Google translator, we were able to decipher some of that interview, which appears to reveal that the man in the “Aulos” video is Vladimir’s music teacher (a guy named Eric) and that he himself is a self-described producer of “medieval house music” (the medieval part, presumably, is the recorder) based in France. And that’s about as much as we were able to glean. If he wishes to remain an enigma, he’s definitely succeeding.
Since the release of “Aulos,” Vladimir has put out a couple remixes, both featuring more of his trademark recorder. We’ll leave you with “Basik Yellow,” his rework of Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow.” Actually, you know what? I was wrong about the recorder. After this track came out, I bet Vladimir Cauchemar got laid a lot.
One of my favorite things about doing this blog is how much it exposes me to music from far-flung corners of the world that we folks here in the sheltered, self-absorbed and increasingly police-state-like U.S. of A. seldom get to hear. And every time we get another country into the mix, our awesome readers are very good at turning us on to all the other weird shit coming out of that country that we might otherwise have overlooked. Case in point: After we wrote about veteran Czech avant-garde rock band Už jsme doma earlier this year, we started getting bombarded with all kinds of crazy stuff from the Czech Republic, which we now know is — thanks in no small part to Už jsme doma’s influence — a hotbed of wild, genre-bending, experimental music. It’s like the entire Czech rock scene is still having a “fuck communism” freedom party nearly 30 years after Václav Havel and co. kicked the Soviets out.
Of all the many crazy Czech bands we’ve been discovering, none is crazier than První hoře, a Prague quintet whose music might best be described as circus prog-rock — or “futuristic punk-jazz cabaret,” which is how they describe themselves on their Bandcamp page. Accordion, metal guitars, odd time signatures, alternately operatic and spastic vocals, and the occasional flute solo collide on nearly every track. It’s wildly entertaining stuff, made all the more entertaining live by Pan Klaun I, their clown accordionist.
První hoře, whose name apparently means First Mountain Sorrow [Update: according to a reader who’s a native Czech speaker and “former roommate of the bass player,” that’s the correct translation], have been around since 1998 and released at least six albums, the most recent of which, Křehký mechanismus pozemského štěstí (Fragile Mechanism of Earthly Happiness) came out last year. We don’t know much about them beyond that, because there’s virtually no information about them online in English. Based on running this page through the ever-shaky Google translator, I gather they were all teenagers when the band first formed in a town called Jičín, and that their third album, Lamento, won something called the “Angel Award for Best Rock Plate” (that’s probably Google translator for “Best Rock Album,” but I kinda prefer the badly translated version) in 2008. Oh, and they’ve also toured with Už jsme doma, which is a double bill I would’ve flown to the Czech Republic to see.
The band has made a few music videos, most of which appear to be assembled from old aerobics tapes and other found footage. But this original clip for the song Otčenáš, from Lamento, is pretty great — as is the track itself, which comes close to something like pop music while still remaining firmly in the eccentric world of První hoře. It’s like The Mars Volta meets Minus the Bear, with accordions.
I’ll leave you with my favorite track from Křehký mechanismus pozemského štěstí, which happens to be the title track. It starts off sounding like Gabriel-era Genesis but trust me, it really goes off the deep end about three minutes in.
A lot of readers have been suggesting for years that we add the Swedish group Ghost (or Ghost B.C., as they were briefly called here in the States) to the Weird List. But we never did, because frankly, once you look past their costumed, pseudo-Satanic theatrics, their music is about as mainstream as it gets. Yeah, the guitars shred and churn in a vaguely metallic way, but they still make My Chemical Romance sound like Slayer by comparison. One of the tracks on their latest album, Prequelle, even features a saxophone solo — and not a screeching John Zorn saxophone solo. More like a Supertramp saxophone solo. Not that there’s anything wrong with that — it’s just not even within shouting distance of weird.
But you know what? A band fronted by a Satanic anti-Pope called Papa Emeritus and made up of anonymous, masked minions called Nameless Ghouls playing what amounts to latter-day hair metal (minus the hair) is, we gotta admit, pretty goddamned weird. Especially at this point in the band’s history, when they’ve been at this for over a decade and managed to achieve something dangerously close to mainstream success while still seeming like an elaborate piss-take of metal’s fascination with Satanism.
The genius and/or huckster (depending on how you feel about Ghost’s shtick) behind all this is a guy named Tobias Forge, whose biggest claim to fame pre-Ghost was fronting a moderately successful Swedish death metal band called Repugnant. For years, Forge managed to keep his own identity in Ghost a secret, only speaking to press in the role of a Nameless Ghoul, even though he played Papa Emeritus onstage from the group’s inception. As word that he was Papa Emeritus began to leak out, he even tried to throw fans and press off by repeatedly firing and replacing Ghost’s evil lead singer with new Papa Emerituses (Emeriti?) — Papa Emeritus II, Papa Emeritus III and short-lived fan favorite Papa Emeritus Zero, who teetered onstage with a cane and an oxygen tank. All were played, of course, by Forge, and most Ghost fans seemed to be in on the joke — but it still added to the band’s air of mystery.
Early Ghost albums mixed galloping metal guitars, pop hooks and Forge’s oddly lightweight vocals (he sounds, not unpleasantly, kind of like a Swedish cross between Billie Joe Armstrong and Placebo’s Brian Molko) with the occasional church organ or medieval-sounding choir, making explicit the idea that they were literally worshiping Satan through their music. Think of it as anti-Christian contemporary rock.
Here’s a taste of their live show. We always suspected Satan was really into Carmina Burana and apparently Ghost think so, too.
In early 2017, Forge’s identity was officially revealed when four former Nameless Ghouls sued him, claiming they were all owed back pay, in some cases stretching all the way back to 2010, and that they were denied treatment as equal bandmates in the project. (Forge hasn’t responded to the suit’s financial claims, but has asserted that Ghost is essentially a solo project, as he writes all the music and is the group’s sole constant member.) The suit, as far as we know, is still pending — but that hasn’t stopped Forge from releasing a new Ghost album, Prequelle, and unveiling yet another lead singer character: Cardinal Copia, who in the video for lead single “Rats” seems less like a demonic clergyman and more like a gothed-out version of Jim Carrey’s character from The Mask, complete with some very Michael Jackson dance moves.
Not surprisingly, a lot of metalheads detest Ghost, which kinda makes us like them even more. Even though this line from a recent article by an angry metalhead for Vice is 100% accurate: “Their entire publicity strategy is like a teenager arriving at Christmas dinner with a face tattoo and then screaming, ‘GOD, LEAVE ME ALONE!’ every time someone points it out.”
I hope we didn’t scare you, gentle readers, by going silent for a few weeks there. You might even say we went “Oh So Quiet.” Why? Because we were agonizing over what artist would be worthy enough to be the 300th (300th! Christ, we’re old) addition to our Weird List.
Then, with the force of an erupting Icelandic volcano, it hit us: Somehow, 299 weird acts into this thing, we’d never written about Björk.
Usually with this blog, we’re so busy looking under rocks and in the darkest corners of the internet for the most obscure, esoteric shit that it’s easy for us to overlook an artist of Björk’s stature. She’s sold millions of albums and headlined countless major festivals — including Coachella twice, which was two more times than any female solo artist had ever done it until they finally booked Lady Gaga and Beyoncé these past two years. She’s been the subject of a Museum of Modern Art exhibition and been named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by that 145th most influential magazine in the world, Time. She performed at the opening ceremonies of the 2004 Summer Olympics wearing a 10,000-square-foot dress — and somehow, that’s only the second most famous dress she’s ever appeared in.
But make no mistake — as famous and widely beloved as she is, Björk is goddamn weird. Over the course of her solo career, she’s released nine studio albums — not counting a self-titled release from 1977, made when she was 11 — that have gotten progressively more arty and abstract. Starting with 2001’s Vespertine (which featured contributions from our favorite weird electronic/musique concrète Baltimore duo, Matmos), each Björk album has existed in its own little universe, occasionally recalling previous Björk albums but really sounding unlike anything else — despite the fact that, at this point, there are literally thousands of artists out there who would love nothing more than to be compared favorably to Björk.
Most English-speaking audiences didn’t become aware of Björk Guðmundsdóttir until 1987, when her band The Sugarcubes scored a U.K. hit with “Birthday,” a quirky bit of Cure-like, moody yet danceable post-punk that was mostly distinguished by Björk’s astonishing vocals. The video, in which a tangle of emotions cascade across her elfin features with every shriek and growl, made Björk a star in a way that the rest of her band never quite caught up to — so it wasn’t a shock when they split up in 1992, paving the way for her solo career.
On her first album, Debut, it’s still Björk’s voice that commands the most attention — which isn’t a knock on her early music (or The Sugarcubes’ for that matter); it’s just extremely hard to write or arrange songs in a way that’s half as compelling as a full-throated Björk high note. Someone had the brilliant idea around this time to shoot a music video that’s literally just her dancing around the back of a flatbed truck as it slowly drives through the streets of New York. The camera never moves, but it’s one of the most iconic videos of the MTV era, because her performance is that passionate and kinetic. Music seems to possess Björk in a way us mere mortals never get to experience it.
If she’d continued to make songs like “Big Time Sensuality” — a bouncy piece of early ’90s electronic pop now forever known to more casual fans as the “dancing around on the back of a truck song” — Björk probably could’ve become the next Madonna. Heck, with her voice, she could’ve been bigger than Madonna if she’d been so inclined. But even on Debut, her experimental streak was already firmly in place — especially in other music videos like “Human Behaviour,” her first collaboration with the great Michel Gondry, later of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind fame. Imagine seeing this on MTV in 1993 and thinking, “Wait, is that the Sugarcubes girl? Is that a claymation hedgehog? What the fuck is going on?”
Over her next two albums, Post and Homogenic, Björk developed a reputation for sonic shapeshifting, tackling everything from industrial (“Army of Me”) to trip-hop (“Enjoy”) to chamber-pop (“Joga”) to big-band jazz (“It’s Oh So Quiet,” an old Betty Hutton chestnut taken into bonkers territory by Björk’s shrieks). She also cranked out a remarkable string of groundbreaking videos with some of the top directors of the ’90s, including Gondry (“Hyperballad,” “Bachelorette”) Spike Jonze (“It’s Oh So Quiet”) and Paul White (“Hunter”).
I’m tempted to just post like 10 of Björk’s ’90s videos here because they’re all so great, but if I had to pick just one (well, two, since I already posted “Human Behaviour”) to represent how awesome and weird Björk’s work was in this period, it would have to be “All Is Full of Love,” a spooky ballad co-produced by ambient/trip-hop artist Howie B with a video by Chris Cunningham, one of the all-time music video greats (also responsible for Aphex Twin‘s “Windowlicker” and “Come to Daddy” clips). The robots-in-love video is beautiful and sexy and still kinda disturbing even 20 years later, which considering how acclimated we’ve all gotten to this kind of CGI is a pretty remarkable achievement.
As weird as Björk’s music videos could get in the ’90s, her music remained, for the most part, pretty accessible until 1997’s Homogenic, when she abandoned any overt pop elements in favor of a more dramatic, cinematic sound — lots of strings, slowly unfolding melodies and poetic lyrics that were evocative but oblique to the point of impenetrability (“I’m a fountain of blood in the shape of a girl,” from “Bachelorette,” being the most famous and striking example). She doubled down on that sound with 2001’s Vespertine, on which she took the very cagey extra step of deliberately selecting only instruments that maintain their integrity, relatively speaking, when digitally compressed — celestas, harps, clavichords and “microbeats” made from found sounds, a technique also used by some of her collaborators, including the aforementioned Matmos and another musique concrète master, Matthew Herbert. (If you’re not familiar with Herbert’s amazing work, go watch this mini-documentary about his 2011 album One Pig right now. We’ll wait.)
A word about Björk’s collaborators, because she’s had a lot of interesting ones (Tricky of Massive Attack and Graham Massey of 808 State among them) and they inevitably get brought it up in any discussion of her music, including this one: That’s just what they are, collaborators. She’s fully in control of her own music and has been for most of her career — certainly since Vespertine, on which she’s credited as the sole producer on 10 of the album’s 12 tracks. But since she’s a woman and since of most of her best-known collaborators are men, they tend to get credit for her sound in a way that doesn’t happen with male artists — a double standard Björk herself has called out repeatedly in interviews. “With the last album [Kanye West] did, he got all the best beatmakers on the planet at the time to make beats for him. A lot of the time, he wasn’t even there. Yet no one would question his authorship for a second,” she told Pitchfork in 2015. “I did 80% of the beats on Vespertine and it took me three years to work on that album, because it was all microbeats — it was like doing a huge embroidery piece. Matmos came in the last two weeks and added percussion on top of the songs, but they didn’t do any of the main parts, and they are credited everywhere as having done the whole album.” So let’s be clear: Yes, Björk chooses interesting collaborators to work with and they have some impact on her sound. But at the end of the day, most of that weird shit you’re hearing on her records is all her.
Since Vespertine, Björk’s albums have tended to be highly conceptual in nature. Medulla used lots of layered vocals (including some from Mike Patton, various beatboxers, and Inuit throat singer Tanya Gillis) to express something about the human body: “I wanted the record to be like muscle, blood, flesh,” she told one interviewer. Her next, Volta, was more percussive, featuring contributions from hip-hop producers Danja and Timbaland (yes, that Timbaland — who is now the answer to the trivia question, “What do Björk and Justin Timberlake have in common?”).
Her 2011 album Biophilia was arguably her strangest and most ambitious project to date — not just an album but a whole multimedia art project, with different apps for each track, and themes built around natural phenomena as metaphors for the human condition. She also experimented with various unusual and custom-made instruments — including a Tesla coil on “Thunderbolt” and something called a gravity harp on “Solstice” — as well as odd time signatures. Three of its tracks are in 17/8 time, which sounds like a music-school dare but does actually give tunes like “Crystalline” a pleasantly off-kilter, elliptical feel.
Biophilia also features what may be my all-time favorite Björk video, for the track “Mutual Core,” which is all about how human relationships are like plate tectonics, or something. Directed by a genius visual artist named Andrew Thomas Huang, it uses CGI animation effects to make what appears sand, rock and yarn perform an elaborate mating ritual.
Björk’s two most recent albums, Vulnicura and Utopia, were co-produced by a Venezuelan electronic artist called Arca who’s pretty amazing and weird in his own right; check out this video (warning: seizure-inducing strobes for days) for proof. His involvement seems to have pushed Björk into some of her darkest and most experimental territory yet. Here’s an especially far-out track from Vulnicura, “Family,” which also features production work from U.K. ambient/drone artist The Haxan Cloak. Creeping doom Björk is my favorite kind of Björk — though it takes a delightful, unexpected twist around the 3:08 mark.
Vulnicura was a breakup album, which could account for its dark tone. Utopia, released last year, is warmer and more hopeful (Björk called it, slyly, her “dating record”). But its music, which features a shit-ton of flutes, is just as bonkers. And its videos are, if anything, some of her weirdest yet. If you’re both repulsed and oddly turned on by this clip for “Arisen My Senses” (directed by frequent Arca collaborator Jesse Kanda, who specializes in creating misshapen, organic forms), don’t worry — you’re not alone. No? It’s just me who’s oddly turned on? OK, I can live with that.
I’ve seen Björk live twice — once at Coachella in 2007, where I remember her playing a massive light-up keyboard that I can’t seem to find any video of, and once here in L.A. at a festival called FYF last year. I found both performances to be a little underwhelming — but to be honest, I didn’t really “get” Björk in 2007, and even since coming to her appreciate her music more, I find it hard to connect with at festivals, where many of its subtleties get lost, in my opinion. Not that my opinion matters — at both shows, thousands of fans around were eating up her every move. And anyway, it’s not the job of an avant-garde artist like Björk to be a crowd-pleaser. She’s always defied expectations, both with her music and how she presents it — and if sometimes punters like me don’t “get it,” that’s par for the course.
Maybe I would have felt differently about her FYF performance if it had featured the woodland creature flute army she brought with her to a recent appearance on Later … With Jools Holland. It was her first TV performance in eight years and a great reminder that, no matter how high she ascends into the pantheon of contemporary musical artists, Björk remains weird as fuck.
Weird music lost one of the greats this week. Glenn Branca, who probably did more for the electric guitar than anyone since Les Paul, died on Sunday, May 13 of throat cancer at the age of 69. He leaves behind a beautiful, occasionally terrifying body of work that stretches back to the earliest days of New York’s No Wave scene right through to his recent experiments with traditional orchestras and 100-guitar symphonies. Any number of guitar- and noise-based bands we’ve written about in the past, from Boredoms to Sunn O))), owe him a huge debt.
Branca was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1948 and got his start in the arts doing experimental theater in Boston. Like a lot of creative misfits of his generation, he was ultimately drawn to New York, where he formed a band called Static, later renamed Theoretical Girls, with a conceptual artist named Jeff Lohn. With Branca and Lohn on guitars, Lohn’s girlfriend Margaret DeWys on keyboards, and future Sonic Youth producer Wharton Tiers on drums (they usually dispensed with bass, though sometimes took turns playing one), Theoretical Girls helped define the short-lived No Wave scene that took the primitivism of punk rock and gave it an arty, dissonant twist. Only a dozen or so songs by Theoretical Girls were ever recorded, but they show Branca’s early interest in rock instrumentation as blunt force object, with a furiously percussive quality that builds and builds on every song until it makes your heart race.
Even before Theoretical Girls broke up in 1981, Branca had begun his own solo experiments, starting with a two-track EP in 1980 called Lesson No. 1 on which he combined No Wave with the avant-garde minimalism of composers like John Cage and Philip Glass, jamming around a single chord with a small orchestra of musicians to achieve a sound that was harsh but also somehow weightless.
He followed that up a year later with what many regard as his masterpiece, The Ascension, which used four guitars in various alternate tunings — including one played by future Sonic Youth co-founder Lee Ranaldo — to create all sorts of crazy dissonance and unexpected overtones. It’s a brilliant piece of experimental art, but on another level it works as just a great, balls-out rock record, with moments that could pass for Television or The Stooges and other moments that still, to this day, don’t sound quite like anything else anyone’s recorded with electric guitars as the dominant instrument.
We hardly ever embed full album streams because everyone’s got the attention span of a cat on speed these days. But if you’ve never heard The Ascension, stop whatever you’re doing, crank up your good speakers, and blast this shit. (If you’re on the fence, maybe it’ll help to know it was one of David Bowie’s favorite records, which might explain that weird Tin Machine phase he went through a decade later. Or not.)
In later years, Branca continued to experiment with harmonics by building his own instruments — most famously, a double-bodied beast he called a “harmonics guitar” (seen in the photo above, and in this short video clip) that, according to its creator, could play “up to 32 to 64 different harmonics on each string depending on how it’s tuned.” (Side note: In 2015, Branca put the harmonics guitar up for sale on eBay, where it sold to some lucky bastard for a measly $787.) He also made “mallet guitars” designed to be played with drumsticks, like a zither or dulcimer, as well as developing his own tuning systems and harmonic theories.
But he always returned to his first love, the guitar. In a fascinating video interview with the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in 2014, he talked about getting his first guitar at 15, which was so crappy, with strings an inch off the fretboard, “I had to squeeze the music out of the thing” — an experience that seemed to set him up for the drastic guitar experiments he would conduct later in life.
None of those experiments was more gob-smacking than his symphonies for 100 guitars, the first of which was performed at the base of the World Trade Center in New York in June of 2001, just a few months before 9/11. Subtitled Hallucination City, Branca’s Symphony No. 13 was noise taken to its most sensory-overload extreme, as those 100 guitars flooded seemingly every frequency in the full sonic spectrum, creating a locust-swarm wall of chiming, droning overtones that, one imagines, must have left the audience feeling like they really had just hallucinated the whole thing.
In that Louisiana Museum of Modern Art interview, Branca says, “I don’t believe in this concept of objectivity. I hate it. This idea that we should all think the same way about things as the rest of us. That’s bullshit. We all see things in our own way and that’s a subjective idea.” To that end, he spent his entire career making music that, he hoped, would be ambiguous or even disorienting enough that each listener could respond to it in their own, totally subjective way. There are very few lyrics in Branca’s music, and never any overt messages, “so that the conscious mind — the one that’s been ingrained in us since we were children — would be broken open and allow us to have more access to our subconscious. Because we’re searching for: Exactly what is this that we’re listening to?”
With that, we’ll break your mind open with one last Branca composition: the first movement to his final 100-guitar symphony, No. 16 (Orgasm), captured here in Paris in its 2015 premiere performance. Rest in peace, Mr. Branca, and thanks for all the noise. May a choir of dissonant angels sing you into the void.