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Mars - The Complete Studio Recordings

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Artist: Mars

Album: The Complete Studio Recordings

Label: G3G/Spooky Sound

Review date: Feb. 3, 2004

I shouldn’t have to explain the significance of the No New York compilation that Brian Eno somehow convinced Island records to release in 1978. I also don’t need add my voice to the already sizeable chorus of critics calling for a proper reissue of the album that isn’t some $40 import. This is music that shouldn’t be limited to record collectors and college radio stations; this is music that is still ready to blow the minds of the next generation of noise mongers. And it should be available in one chunk as Eno originally intended it. All the music on it is currently in print, though. You just need to buy 3 CDs and a 4-disc box set to get it all. And this CD is one of the four you’d need.

As a musical unit, Mars represents the total devolution of the Velvet Underground into almost total noise. The quartet of Sumner Crane, China Burg, Mark Cunningham, and Nancy Arlen formed in 1975 by jamming on VU tunes and slowly mutated from there. In about three years of existence, they recorded about half an hour of music, all of which are collected here in chronological order (the 4 tracks from No New York, the 3-E single, and the Mars EP). I am now required by law to point out that there already exists one collection of Mars’ output, 78+ released on Atavistic. However, that compilation replaced some of the studio tracks with live versions.

The progression/regression of Mars’ music over the course of their existence is astounding, with “3-E,” “Helen Forsdale,” and “Monopoly” best showing the changes. “3-E” is the most conventional song in the Mars oeuvre. Built on a rollicking bass-line (something Cunningham was quite good at), the song has a serious Velvet Underground vibe, with a simple rhythmic drive in the guitars and drums and amazingly comprehensible lyrics about Marcel Proust. All of the elements that make up a rock song by a rock band are used in their normal way within a fairly normal structure. Don’t get too used to it. Jumping ahead to the opening track of side 2 of No New York, “Helen Forsdale,” changes are clearly beginning to occur. The bass-line is still solidly there, and it’s a doozey (Sonic Youth would later borrow it for “Star Power” on Evol). But above that, the guitars have (very intentionally) morphed into buzzing insects which do battle with Crane’s now howled vocals. It’s classic no-wave, perhaps the best song to come out of the scene. While you won’t come out humming anything but the bass-line, chances are that if you heard it at a dance-club, your ass would shake a bit. Once again, this is the anomaly.

What Mars’ sound is truly about is sonic texture, treating all the instruments as sounds to be layered in some grand mass of structured noise. In that way, they are an outgrowth of the musical pointillism of Webern, the precise wackiness of Stockhausen, and the feedback experiments of Robert Ashley, and the forerunners of Wolf Eyes and US Maple. By the time they recorded “Monopoly,” any resemblance to rock music was gone, replaced by explosions of noise and violence that seem just barely controlled. As Lydia Lunch puts it, “Demons who once wrenched free, made mimicry of the jangling nerve centers, and given voice as song, turned schizophrenic and howled these testimonials to the unbearable.”

Mars was, in a way, much closer to an intellectual experiment in scatological extremes than a rock band. Their songs, especially the more disjointed ones, could easily become points of discussion in a modern composition class, since they often deal with conflicting meters and oddly logical interruptions. And even when they do rock out a bit more, the lyrics are depraved enough to undermine everything. Yeah, so it’s all fairly pretentious, but in that good way which all no-wave inhabits. The intellectualization and pretension are both necessary parts of the music; without them, the noise and confrontation ring hollow as just an attempt to shock. No-wave gains its power from melding of the ideas of Cage and Reich with the aggression and power of punk rock. Take another listen to “Helen Forsdale” and try to convince yourself that it’s not punk to the core. You won’t be able to.

By Dan Ruccia

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