Glenn Branca’s first solo album could hardly have predicted the raw, unfettered trajectory his career would take throughout the rest of the 80s, when his rock “symphonies” splattered feedback and amplifier buzz all over the modern composition palette. In comparison to the blurting dissonance of Symphony No. 1 or the elongated drone of Symphony No. 3 (both recorded just three years later), Lesson No. 1 is a simple but vibrant album that provides only a skeletal blueprint of where Branca would be heading.
This reissue gives this material, at last, a much-deserved return to the spotlight for curious Branca fans who weren’t around to snag the original vinyl. Revisiting Lesson No. 1 almost 25 years later, the opening title track is revealed as the most poppy and accessible 8 minutes of Branca’s career. Alan Licht’s informative liner notes draw parallels to Joy Division and U2 as well as the obligatory mentions of Terry Riley and LaMonte Young, and the connections are obvious in the chugging melodic drive of the dueling guitars.
The guitar sound is uncharacteristically chiming, and settles more often than not into traditional rock riffs, rather than the blurry feedback grind of later Branca compositions. This is a crystal-clear rock song, stripped down to the barest element of a denuded riff, cycling around and around and building intensity as the pounding drums ascend into a motorik rhythmic pulse. The music stays the same, but escalates in emotional intensity: the basis of rock from its earliest days to the present, and here it’s only translated into a slightly more avant-garde (but never academic) context than usual. Hardly Branca’s most complicated work, but right there at the core is the essence of everything in his music, offered in its most accessible form.
The second track, “Dissonance,” lives up to its name by presenting the more confrontational aspect of the composer’s music. Taken together with “Lesson No. 1,” these two tracks—the two sides of the original vinyl album—complete the picture of Branca’s rock deconstruction. Whereas the “Lesson” taught the pure cathartic power of a poppy guitar motif, “Dissonance” strips away such songwriterly concerns, concentrating on the raw unmelodic potential of the electric guitar, reveling in its string pile-ups and escalatory flights of uncontrollable feedback chaos. Unfortunately, this piece presents too incomplete a portrait of Branca, and it ends up sounding a bit empty and sluggish when placed against the gleaming liveliness of “Lesson No. 1.”
Thankfully, the CD reissue adds a third track, “Bad Smells,” which was originally released in 1982 as one side of a split between Branca and the poet John Giorno. This piece is similar in sound to the first two, positioning it closer to Branca’s early experiments than to the more assured work he would do later on. Accompanied by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, among others, Branca charges through an ever-shifting collage of styles and sounds.
After about six minutes of thrashing pop-punk that bears a close relation to the glorious thrust of “Lesson No. 1,” the music utterly shifts gears into a more threatening riff-fest, as slow-moving chords gather into dense clouds of feedback over the fast drumming. Then the composition unexpectedly segues into a funky interlude of spastic stop-start rhythms and elastic guitar bends, before an extended ambient break gives way to another dissonant explosion at the end. It’s a chaotic and fractured piece, a true departure from Branca’s usual coherent build-ups.
This album is primarily interesting as a historical curiosity that provides deeper insight into the genesis of Branca’s music—though “Lesson No. 1” itself would certainly be an unqualified joy in any context. This is the music of a punker trying his hand at composition, filtering primal rock fury into extended suites of beauty and impact, forging battles and unlikely alliances between rock’s twin impulses of melody and dissonance.
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