The Lazarus Pit: Glenn Branca’s Symphony No. 6 (Devil Choirs at the Gates of Heaven)

Welcome to The Lazarus Pit, a biweekly look at should-be classic metal records that don’t get nearly enough love; stuff that’s essential listening that you’ve probably never heard of; stuff that we’re too lazy to track down the band members to do a Hall Of Fame for.  This week, we rush the pearly barricades armed with nothing more than a bass, keyboard, drum kit, and 10 guitars, led by Glenn Branca and his Symphony No. 6 (Devil Choirs at the Gates of Heaven) (Blast First).
This one is a little out of left field, I’ll grant you.  Branca is one of those crazy genius avant-garde composers, and he’s more known for his associations with New York’s no wave scene (the label he started, Neutral, released the first few Sonic Youth records).  But much like John Zorn, the man has been instrumental in the development of extreme music over the past few decades, even if the influence has only really started to become obvious over the past few years.  The composition he’s most known for, 1982’s Ascension, was one of the quintessential examples of someone approaching the rock band format more like a classical ensemble than a blues-based endeavor.  However, it’s 1989’s Symphony No. 6 (Devil Choirs at the Gates of Heaven) that really deserves recognition for its contributions to the metallic art – and not just because it’s about Satan.

With a phalanx of 10 guitarists (including Helmet’s Page Hamilton), Branca was able to use the tonality (and atonality) of a wall of guitars to create a deeply unsettling drone piece.  The instruments form a swarm of wasps.  Sometimes the swarm buzzes in place uneasily, sometimes the drums incite them to hyperkinetic rage until the insects seem like they’re going to burst.  Sometimes a lone bee will break off from the pack, forging its own strangely melodic path before rejoining the group.  And then the cluster surrounds you entirely.  Someone pounds on the piano keys with a hammer – the wasps don’t like that very much.  So they fly in unison, threateningly.  And then they all die.

Considering how big a thing drone has become in modern extreme music, you can probably see how this satanic symphony was an influence.  I guarantee you Mick Barr (Orthrelm, Krallice) has heard this thing, and a good chunk of Temporary Residence Limited’s roster.  And hell, Branca outdid most of the acts that followed – how many guitars does SunnO))) use?  Probably not 10.  To be fair, Branca also hasn’t languished in obscurity like most of the acts covered in this column.  He’s a well-respected composer, winning all sorts of art grants and stuff like that.  It’s a shame that more metal dudes aren’t familiar with his work, though.  Most heshers get excited when bands have three guitars – this recording stomps that into the dust.

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