The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Monday, April 28, 2003
TWO APPROACHES TO MAXIMALIST MINIMALISM: MIKE OLDFIELD AND GLENN BRANCA

Over Easter I received two rather welcome CDs; one a complete re-recording of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells in commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the work's original release; the other the absurdly overdue CD remastering/reissue of Glenn Branca's The Ascension. Both extended exercises in conjuring the maximum sonic and emotional effects from minimalist guitar-based raw material; both serving entirely different audiences and purposes. It's sometimes said that Tubular Bells was the legitimisation/final triumph of minimalism as the Riley, Glass and Reich of 1973 would have known the term; moreover, it is the culmination of a certain strain of prog/folk-rock, just as The Ascension is the culmination of No Wave and the bridge towards what followed it.

Tubular Bells would of course have been unthinkable without the then 19-year-old Oldfield's grounding, firstly in featherlite folk-rock with his sister Sally in Sallyangie, and secondly his tenure as bassist in Kevin Ayers' finest incarnation of The Whole World - listen to Ayers' Shooting At The Moon, a record as much responsible for Sonic Youth as The Ascension, and observe how firmly Oldfield anchors the divulgent wanderings of Ayers, Lol Coxhill and David Bedford. The beginning of Tubular Bells - the bit which everyone knows, the section used in The Exorcist - superficially seems like minimalism with its glitteringly sinister piano and harpsichord overlapping motif, but this is not the deliberately static melodicism of Glass or the percussion-based ruminations of Reich; as the bass guitar and then the harmonic structure enter, we realise that this is essentially a folk refrain in true Dorian mode; there are roots to this music which cannot be reproduced in a Juillard laboratory. Observe also how the repeated organ stabs punctuate the uncertain placidity of the music, before two electric guitars suddenly proclaim a transition; but instead of the expected metallic overload, we are ushered into the work's second theme; a glorious major key mandolin-driven melody. But this is as elusive a utopia as the unrepeatable opening chord of Vaughan Williams' Tallis Fantasia; the first theme reasserts itself to a degree before giving way to a simple, distant piano/glockenspiel pattern. Then the agitation begins; pianos overlap (the nearest the work comes stylistically to Glass) and an electric guitar angrily snaps its way back in before culminating in a monstrous Sabbath riff for several fuzzed basses and (synthesised?) low male chorus. A Latinate melody and rhythm then make themselves known, rather inexplicably, before it again briefly leads us towards the major mandolin theme.

Following this we have what could well be a digested history of the previous ten years of Brit blues-rock guitar; specifically a tribute to the then-just-lost Peter Green. A low heartbeat of tom-toms and guitars immediately recalls "Albatross" before the music steps up a gear, pausing to immerse itself in a pub piano and male voice choir, before launching into a brutal mass guitar riff overhung with a sinister organ drone. A prophecy of Branca? Not quite; the music then mutates into jazz-rock (inadvertently inventing Pat Metheny along the way) before an abrupt terminus and the tolling of "ghost bells." Lost, as the sleeve makes quite clear, at sea. A reluctant acoustic guitar plucks another folk melody (and this whole sequence is very reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac's "Oh Well") and just as the strumming is about to turn angry...

...rebirth and regeneration. A nearly palpable nautical melody ("Drunken Sailor"?) is mutated by guitar and distant reed organ before launching into the finale of Side One. A bass line slowly builds in intensity - impossibly slowly for 1973 - echoed by the same distant organ. With guitars added, the drone becomes hypnotic, almost electronic in nature; one can see why Orbital think this the acoustic equivalent of Kraftwerk's Autobahn of a year later - the two are frighteningly compatible. The fugue continues to build up, and...enter Vivian Stanshall; the reason why I bought this album as a nine-year-old Bonzos fan. He announces the entrance of each instrument in exactly the same mode used on "The Intro And The Outro" but here it becomes more absurd with the lack of joke credits. "Double speed guitar," he says, slightly bewildered. "Two slightly distorted guitars" he announces, completely bemused but absolutely straight-faced. It wouldn't have worked otherwise. Finally he proclaims "PLUS...TUBULAR BELLS!" and said bells slam into the headphones with immense force. Female voices lend a chorus; the agitated groove settles into a comfortable, embracing wave. Life has begun again, and all there is left to say is said by a simple acoustic guitar which ends the piece, unaccompanied yet unobtrusive.

This was pretty much all that Oldfield needed to say but there was another album side to be filled, and this he does with extended but inessential musings on the material already suggested on Side One. The opening "Harmonica" and "Peace" sections are more overtly folk-based, and in places quite poignant, but the build-up to the bagpipe guitar/timpani theme seems somewhat contrived, and the "Caveman" section even more so. After that he settles for some limpid ambient drones to conclude the album (a possible influence on the Durutti Column?) before closing with the theme on which the entire album may or may not be based - "The Sailor's Hornpipe" (Was that all there was? Try and find the quadrophonic version on the Boxed compilation, where the finale includes a brilliant "upstairs and downstairs" commentary from Stanshall).

There are many noticeable bum notes on the original TB, and apparently it has long been Oldfield's ambition to re-record the entire work with Proper Technology and No Mistakes. I don't know. The facilities used to produce a record aren't as important as the imagination which is completely necessary to make a profound record. Thus "Interstellar Overdrive" or Escalator Over The Hill had to be rattled out on tinpot instruments and recorded in studios with the capacity of today's average Walkman, but their imagination still manages to blow and expand minds today. And I always thought that TB in the commercial/chart world worked best as the anti-Dark Side Of The Moon - its constant companion in the album charts for most of the '70s - determinedly lo-fi, pieced together piecemeal, the whole point being that it wasn't stereo sensurround numbness/numbifier.

So Tubular Bells 2003 isn't quite played as it was in 1973, and the music deteriorates as a result. Unwanted Enya synthesisers now clog up the spaces which were essential in the original, a grand piano replaces the pub piano, and worst of all, John Cleese now does the voiceover in his best Basil Fawlty voice and manages to (a) be completely unfunny; and (b) detonate the point of Stanshall's original urban faux-urbanity. Beautifully played and produced, but it's the sort of beauty which banishes beauty (or even humanity). As prominent and pointless as Gus Van Sant's shot-by-shot remake of Psycho (can one imagine Cleese doing the voiceover, even in 1973?).

Branca banishes sentimentality and sailors in his work, but crucially not euphoria. The Ascension, recorded by his "core" six-piece band and originally released in late 1981, is one of the key records of the last quarter-century, a record in its way as influential on what followed it as "Planet Rock." This was an attempt to formalise, if not legitimise, the practices of No Wave (just as TB sought to order the distended flakes of prog, minimalism, folk-rock and even improv). Branca spoke of symphonies almost from the off, yet the performances of his various groups were usually faux-formal, always quick to break into heads-down, frets-up passion. On The Ascension, the core sextet consists of four guitarists (Branca himself, Ned Sublette, David Rosenbloom and, most importantly, the young Lee Ranaldo), Jeffrey Glenn on bass and Stephan Wischerth on drums. The existence of this group forces a live interaction which is of course not possible on TB, the latter virtually played entirely by a multi-tracked Oldfield, so the music has to face out into the world rather than into one individual's mind.

As with its inescapable namesake and soulmate, Coltrane's Ascension, this music begins where most other music peaks. Immediately on the opening "Lesson No 2" we are led into what sounds like a mutated Joy Division riff, all anxious guitars, off-step drums and oscillating bass. After a couple of minutes the structure slowly atomises and takes itself apart, before it fades to a brief silence which is brutally terminated by a beyond-immense series of crashing, glass-breaking chords which are far more powerful than Oldfield's bells (though they serve the same purpose). As with Ayler at his most concentrated, there's no sense here of yearning to achieve nirvana; this is the terrible sound of something already achieved.

"The Spectacular Commodity" has of course to be listened to with fresh ears, knowing the intervening two decades of Sonic Youth activity; indeed this piece now seems like a blueprint for SY's entire career (Thurston Moore succeeded Ranaldo in later Branca line-ups) with a procession of riffs/free interludes out of which other lesser groups would have craved to build an album. The effects here and elsewhere in Branca's music were achieved by tuning each guitar to the same note and separating them by register (soprano/alto/tenor/baritone). This gives an immensity and textural resonance which cannot be met by overdubbing or studio trickery. From the howling spectres which open the piece, the music gradually moves through ever more approachable phases before, at about nine minutes in, it launches itself into a glorious, climactic major-key riff/anthem which one does not wish to end. The final decisive drum crash is, again, an enormous YES to life.

(and while we're on the subject of Petula Clark, I had forgotten the importance of "Downtown" in the film Girl, Interrupted; indeed it seems to me that the song and performance make the entire film redundant)

The relatively brief "Structure" deconstructs a piledriving metal riff into its components, achieving a stasis arguably more imposing than that found in Glass. "Light Field (In Consonance)" again returns to exultant, major-key melodies and riffs; hear the ecstatic guitar glissandi which punctuate the piece (perhaps echoed in the instrumental mix of Propaganda's "Jewel" four years later?), realise also that this music is a millimetre away from being Big Country (which is not to criticise poor old Stuart Adamson; merely to point out the infinitesimal but crucial differences which can separate one school of music from another).

Last and by all means most, we have the title piece: "The Ascension." This is the piece least easy to assimilate, but it is the most overwhelming. In the slow build-up of guitars over the first 3-4 minutes of the work, we hear immensity without much discernible effort - the same echoes in a shallow bay which we would later hear in the Cocteau Twins. Then the music climaxes over and over, higher and higher; plectrums become indiscernible, individuals mutate into a single organism/entity, and there is again a terrible and awesome certainty to this music's natural grandeur. Here Branca has actually achieved the Wall of Sound which Spector strived for so long to build (and one's mind can only boggle at what might have ensued had Spector been brought in to produce The Ascension) and in the charring, fusing elements of "The Ascension"'s climax one gets very, very close to whatever the "truth" may be in music. Perhaps only Kevin Shields/MBV understood how to take this music even further (I refer you, if you can find it, to the cataclysmic version of "You Made Me Realise" recorded at London's Town and Country Club on 15 November 1991; it is available as a bootleg), though of all the music which it influenced in subsequent years, the Swans at their peak were certainly capable of equalling its intensity (at least superficially) and Husker Du and Sonic Youth at their most purposeful weren't far off it either.

I first heard it in early 1982, at a time where, perhaps in a pronounced reaction/counterpart to New Pop, rock did seem to be reaching a peak of near-unbearable intensity (think of Junkyard or Revelations or Hex Enduction Hour). The music has been remastered for CD; the spread seems slightly wider but the intensity remains. The reissue carries a very poignant sleevenote from Ranaldo (it begins "The album that you hold in your hand - the city in which this music was made no longer exists on the face of the Earth" and though 9/11 is not mentioned, you can't help but think of it) who also acknowledges the compromises necessary to make the music stereo-friendly (it was recorded in the hi-tech Power Station in NYC, as used by Springsteen, the Stones, etc.). As one who was fortunate enough to see Branca's group in person - at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, just over 20 years ago - I can testify that the music was far bloodier and more physical than is apparent on what is already an uncommonly intense record. It is reissued on 16 June; get it, even if you have to skip lunch for a fortnight to do it.


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