Glenn Branca

glenn-branca-double-guitar

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.

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Weird of the Day: ZX Electric, “Altered States”

ZX Electric

A gentleman by the name of John Wedge dropped a band from Liverpool called ZX Electric into our inbox over the weekend, and we’re definitely intrigued by their lo-fi, retro sound and especially the strangled, haunted voice of their lead singer, Ben Mawdsley. They have two albums up on Bandcamp called Obsolete (posted May 2013) and Fixed Unknown (posted January 2014). At first, because of the music’s sparse, no wave vibe and squiggly, analog synths, we thought they might be reissues—especially when we found one of the band’s YouTube videos and it was tagged “rare post punk obscure 1981.” But we’re pretty sure they’re contemporary.

Here’s a track from Fixed Unknown, “Altered States.” To quote Julian Cope, who’s a fan: “Kiddies, this artist deploys enormous emptiness as part of his major musical arsenal, occasionally tearing at the heartstrings with hoary chord sequences and anguished vocals so appallingly pained that, veritably, it maketh me want to rend my own garments.” What he said!

You can hear more of ZX Electric’s desolate ditties on Bandcamp.

The Flying Luttenbachers

Flying Luttenbachers

Normally, to write about a band as batshit at The Flying Luttenbachers, I’d be drunk by now. Instead, I’m sitting here sipping Glenlivet single malt like a total boss. Why? Because today marks not one, but two major milestones in the history of our stupid little blog.

First: Today’s our five year anniversary! What’d you get us? Nothing? That’s OK. Technically, you all got us something, because today’s other major milestone is this: We just racked up our one millionth page view. How fucking cool is that? OK, if you divide one million by five years, it’s maybe less cool, but still. Considering our booze habits, obscure subject matter and complete lack of self-promotional skills, we’ve done all right.

OK, now that we’re done patting ourselves on the back: The Flying Luttenbachers. We’ve been saving these guys for a special occasion like today, because they are truly one of the strangest, noisiest, craziest bands ever to turn their amps up to 11.

The brainchild of drummer/ringleader Weasel Walter, for 17 years they terrorized audiences with a mix of free jazz, skronk, punk, metal, noise-rock, no wave and whatever else whoever was in the studio or onstage with Walter that day cared to unleash. They were like a more aggro Naked City, a jazzier Locust, and a faster Captain Beefheart, all marinated in fuck-you Chicago attitude and imbued with the shredding super-powers of your favorite technical death metal band. Weasel Walter called it “brutal prog.”

Oh, and there’s also an apocalyptic storyline about a cosmic battle between a void, a behemoth, and a giant robot buried beneath the earth who can only emerge after the human race has been eradicated. All told via the liner notes and song titles like “Rise of the Iridescent Behemoth,” because all the music is instrumental.

Here, suck on some right now:

That was from the 1995 album Destroy All Music, featuring the band’s confusingly named original saxophonist Chad Organ, along with Weasel on drums, Dylan Posa on guitar, Jeb Bishop on bass and trombone, and Ken Vandermark on sax and clarinet. And I’m not sure I bothered to tell you all that, because that’s one of about 20 different lineups the band went through and it’s not like I’m going to name them all. I suppose some might call Destroy All Music the Luttenbachers’ most mind-blowing work, but I dunno. A few years later, they released this:

That’s from the 1998 album Gods of Chaos, which featured a power trio version of the Luttenbachers with Chuck Falzone on guitar and Bill Pisarri on bass. Then there’s this:

What you’re hearing there is Weasel Walter jamming good with two bassists: Jonathan Hischke on the high parts, or “air” bass, and Alex Perkolup holding down the low end with his “earth” bass. Who needs those extra strings, anyway?

Towards the end of the Luttenbachers’ 17-year run, Weasel Walter seems like he was getting frustrated with his band’s revolving-door lineup. In the liner notes for the final Luttenbachers album, 2007’s Incarceration by Abstraction, he actually specifically says that he intended to record the album with guitarists Ed Rodriguez and Mick Barr…but they weren’t available, so he did the whole thing by himself.

At the same time he released Incarceration by Abstraction, Walter Weasel announced that the Luttenbachers had “ceased operation.” He’s since moved to New York and now holds down gigs in two bands, Cellular Chaos and Behold…The Arctopus. Both of which are pretty crazy, intense bands…but we still hold out hope that Weasel will reconvene some version of the Luttenbachers one of these days, because their live shows look like they were absolutely insane.

We’ll leave you with our favorite Flying Luttenbachers, which has nothing to do with the rest of the band’s output but is just too damn much fun not to include. This is from an appearance sometime in early ’00s on the Chicago cable access show Chic-a-Go-Go. The song is “De Futura” from that two-bassists 2002 album, Infection and Decline. And, by the way, it’s a cover of the French prog-rock/Zeuhl band Magma. Thanks to reader John for pointing that to us. We never would’ve figured that shit out on our own.

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Weird of the Day: Erleen Nada, “Psychedelic Spaceship”

Erleen Nada

I don’t know about you, but some of my favorite weird music videos are the ones where you can quite tell if the band is kidding or not. When I first watched “Psychedelic Spaceship” from self-proclaimed “sassy synth master” Erleen Nada, I was sure the whole thing was a big goof. Now I’ve watched it like 10 times, because it’s awesome, and I can’t tell anymore. She’s like the sexy lovechild of Jan Terri and Fred Schneider. Is she really gonna take a ride on a psychedelic spaceship? Is she really infinity? I think maybe she is. Take me with you, Erleen!

For more from Erleen, who’s yet another weirdo from right here in Lost Anjealous, check out her website.

Lucrate Milk

Lucrate Milk
Artwork lifted from a rare live cassette featured on this site

This week’s weird band was one of many we’re still sifting through from an aptly named reader called Sick Nick. Thanks for all the suggestions, Nick! Clearly, you’re a sick man, indeed.

Lucrate Milk was a French punk/No Wave band active from about 1979 to 1984. They’re often compared to other bands of the era like The Slits and X-Ray Spex, mostly because they featured a saxophone and aggro female vocals. But their twisted, dadaist take on punk rock was really like nothing else before or since.

The band was started by a pair of underground artists named Lombrick Laul and Tomas Huser (aka “Masto Lowcost”), who borrowed their name from their day jobs as milk delivery men. Adding a drummer named Raoul Gaboni, an American-born keyboardist named Nina Childress and, briefly, a vocalist called Helno, they began by playing various punk squats around the seedier parts of Paris and stenciling their name all over town. According to band legend, they forced one another to play their least favorite instruments—with Laul picking up the bass and Masto taking on the saxophone, which he did indeed tend to play like he was awkwardly handling a cumbersome foreign object. Presumably because it was everyone’s favorite, nobody played guitar.

Lucrate Milk live shows were noisy and highly theatrical affairs, often featuring bizarre homemade costumes and highlighted by Childress’ spastic stage presence—she took over vocal duties when Helno left pretty early on. Here’s a clip from one of their last shows in February of 1984, rescued from the dustbin of punk-rock history by the miracle that is YouTube:

Laul and Masto Lowcost designed all of the band’s graphics and videos, most of which were not music videos per se but just used as projections during the band’s live shows. Sadly, most of these are not available online, or maybe anywhere, but a few shreds of their video output still exist. In particular, there’s a 2006 DVD that was released as part of a compilation of their music, and it seems to contain a few classic Lucrate Milk clips (though we haven’t had a chance to see it) as well as newer visual interpretations of their stuff like this one. The DVD’s not widely available, but this site appears to still have it in stock.

After Lucrate Milk called it quits, Laul and Masto went on to work with another, more popular French punk band called Bérurier Noir, who were sort of a cross between Lucrate Milk, Black Flag and DEVO. Nina Childress became a successful painter, and poor ol’ Helno died of a heroin overdose after briefly fronting this band. Yeah, there was a lot of weird music in France in the ’80s.

We’ll leave you with the greatest surviving piece of Lucrate Milk eye candy, the fantastically twisted “Nepla Relou,” which sounds like The Residents and X-Ray Spex trapped under a collapsed circus tent and looks like a Troma movie directed by Johnny Rotten. Oh, and we’ll add this quote from another website, which sums up Lucrate Milk’s music better than we ever could: “It’s absurd, short, violent, brilliant and funny, like your mate puking on himself.” Yep. It’s exactly like that.

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Social Climbers

I gotta be honest on this one, folks: I’m not sure democracy really worked this time. You people voted this band onto the Weird List from our Submit & Vote page, fair and square, but…I dunno. I’m just not really feeling Social Climbers.

Part of the problem could be just a lack of hard evidence. According to the label that’s reissuing their one and only album, Social Climbers were a “no-wave/proto-punk” band from New York who were odd even compared to other bands at the time like Suicide and Teenage Jesus & the Jerks. They supposedly did things like stage entire concerts with cardboard cutouts of themselves and piped-in music. But this was back in 1980, before videocameras were everywhere, so no record of those shows exist. All we have, in fact, is the music: an album’s worth of stuff like the “Domestic” track below, which is a little odd in a Talking Heads-meets-DEVO sort of way, but nothing especially mind-blowing.

We will say this for them, though: Mark Bingham, the main driving force behind Social Climbers, sounds like our kind of dude. An Indiana native who was apparently always more into jazz and avant-garde music (and played with guys like Glenn Branca and John Scofield), these days he runs a recording studio in New Orleans called Piety Street and looks back somewhat ruefully on his days hanging with the hip kids on the Lower East Side. “The downtown scene was really hostile to anyone who really knew how to play music,” he says of the whole NYC punk/no-wave scene at that time. “I couldn’t take the whole vibe of trust fund kids in black clothes getting smacked out and pretending to be punks.” (This from a great 2009 profile of the guy by Offbeat magazine.)

Bingham’s also done a bunch of solo records, some of which are available on CD Baby. Among them: an album of music cues for puppet shows and a bunch of instrumentals originally written to accompany poems by Ed Sanders of The Fugs. So hey, maybe he is a pretty weird guy, at that.

Anyhow, Social Climbers’ self-titled 1980 album was just reissued on Drag City Records. If you’re feeling it, you can preview more tracks and perhaps buy yourself a copy here.

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