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Mars - Live at Artists Space

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Artist: Mars

Album: Live at Artists Space

Label: Feeding Tube

Review date: Mar. 21, 2012

Of the three most documented No Wave groups — DNA, Teenage Jesus & The Jerks and Mars — the latter may be the hardest to come to grips with. And given the raw nature of all three, that’s saying something. Teenage Jesus, fronted by Lydia Lunch, was like a burst of unadulterated punk attitude before such a thing really existed. DNA, primarily via guitarist Arto Lindsay, approached their music in a sideways manner, sounds angled in all but the right direction. Mars, however, seemed to eschew both musicality and attitude, indulging in seemingly formless noise jams and drawn-out droning that often alienated and puzzled simultaneously.

Like all of the No Wave crowd, the quartet lasted only briefly, for about two years after their first show in January 1977. Very little recorded material was ever released, and most of that came after the band had broken up, but rumors of live recordings have persisted over the years. In particular, an infamous five-night gathering in May 1978 at New York City’s Artists Space featured most of the scene’s best-known figures, from which only bits and pieces have surfaced in recorded form.

This LP-only release features both sets that Mars played on May 6, the final day of the concert series, both consisting of the same songs (in the same order). What differs is the recording quality, but only marginally. Side A was recorded on a portable cassette recorder, while side B was recorded by Lust/Unlust label boss Charles Ball using a more professional setup. That said, both sides sound equally thin. The drums are like someone pounding on a tissue box, and it’s rare to be able to make out the bass at all, though the side B tracks do at least provide a bit of low-end.

The songs, almost surprisingly, will be familiar to anyone who’s heard the studio recordings. By 1978, it appears Mars had worked through their set list to the extent that the songs were more structured than free-form. From the Velvet Underground underpinnings of "3E" to the chaotic burst of "Puerto Rican Ghost,” the opportunity to hear two sets back-to-back makes it clear that after more than a year of performing, the foursome had worked out the forms beneath the formlessness.

"Helen Fordsdale" was perhaps the band’s signature song, with the clinking percussion and sliding, screeching guitar that’s the clear antecedent to Sonic Youth’s forays — without this song, "Death Valley ’69" likely would not have existed. The drawling vocals of "11000 Volts,” like a drunk slurring in the middle of the night, place vocalist/guitarist China Burg as a lost link between Patti Smith and Michael Gira. "Tunnel" has the most explosive guitar work, perhaps, and sounds like a half-dozen instruments exploding at once while Sumner Crane babbles in an equally volatile way.

There’s a fire to some of these cuts, albeit muddied by the unfortunate sound quality. But I have to admit that I expected less restraint than what I hear. It’s as if the band was keeping themselves from really cutting loose — was it nerves, fraying ties (the band’s last show was seven months later), or were they just tired? Nonetheless, taking into consideration that this material is more than 30 years old, the songs remain remarkably fresh, a reminder of just how out-of-time Mars were.

By Mason Jones

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