Onetime Glenn Branca collaborator Wharton Tiers’ enduring claim to fame is his role as Fun City recording studio guru, the man behind the dials on key releases by Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., White Zombie and Helmet. In the mid-’90s, while maintaining employment in a variety of music production gigs (including, with Helmet’s Page Hamilton, producing the William Shatner TV ads for Priceline), Tiers began to put together something of a guitar orchestra with an evolving, revolving roster of players bolstered by his own puissant drumming and the sax bleats of Fletcher Buckley. Experimenting with layered sonic textures and, at its best moments, recalling the instrumentals of rock’n’roll’s heyday, the Ensemble’s oeuvre incorporates as much “Rawhide” and “Walk Don’t Run” as Branca. While the Ensemble’s fun and fervor translates best in its robust, kinetic live shows, the recordings offer a slightly consolidated version of a unique musical approach.
Recorded over the course of five years, Brighter Than Life is an often-fascinating feeling-out of styles. Tiers created roughly half the tracks solo as overdubbed studio experiments, mostly extensions of ideas first postulated within the framework of Branca’s daring compositions for rock guitar. Yet the highlights are Ensemble pieces, particularly “Sheet Metal Workers,” which boasts the album’s greatest number of contributors (four guitars, bass, drums and sax).
Touring must have strengthened the band’s focus, because Twilight of the Computer Age locates a winning formula. Though “five guitars, sax, bass and drums” is the description on the back of the CD, no less than eight guitarists contributed to the recording. Once the title rave-up bursts out of the gate with a driving surf beat for the new millennium, Twilight of the Computer Age is an unstoppable tour de force of whirling dervishry (“Rakshak”), disjointed weirdness (“Peaking on Mars”), cow-punk (“Sandy Rides Again”), cow-space-punk (“Lonesome Space Cowboy”) and “Rumble”-esque backstreet blues themes (“Five” — which is, of course, track 4).
In 2000, the Ensemble provided music for a dance production I, Rasputin, in New York.