There’s a section in Marc Masters’ excellent No Wave book that lists the bellicose reactions to Mars from the late-’70s music press. New York Rocker’s Andy Schwartz rallies against the “total absence of any human feeling save a kind of neurotic violence,” while an anonymous critic declares them “empty and arty.” But the vacuous barbarity of the Mars sound is exactly what made them tick. They were a band perfectly capturing the essence of downtown New York while living in the belly of a bankrupted city.
This album collects all 11 studio recordings the band made during its two-year lifespan. Mars resolutely practiced a brand of nonmusic that was atonal, out of standard tune, and leaned heavily on unconventional song structure. For a band that started from a deliberately limited palate, it’s fascinating to hear how they slowly chipped away at their influences. The key to Mars was to devolve, not evolve.
Over the course of this record, the pounding Moe Tucker-ish drums of debut single “3E” give way to the formless splendor of Mars’ final recordings. The band was un-learning as they went along, constantly stripping away the conventions of rock until they arrived at a uniquely guttural take on primitivism. It’s fitting that the final recording by the band, “The Immediate Stages of the Erotic,” ends with singer Sumner Crane coughing and spluttering, completely rejecting vocal conventions and leaving the band with an artistic void they wisely chose not to leap into.
It’s important to mention “Helen Forsdale,” the band’s most recognizable track and one of four songs produced by Brain Eno for the No New York album. “Helen Forsdale” is a proto Sonic Youth stomper that is as close as Mars comes to convention. It’s the sound of a band on the cusp of learning its trade. For lesser groups “Helen Forsdale” would signal a direction to head in, a sound that could be carefully honed and shaped into something resembling a career. Mars immediately freed themselves from its shackles. It feels like they caught a glimpse of themselves in the mirror and threw a rock toward their reflection. It’s difficult to imagine any contemporary band making such a decision, and it only adds further weight to Mars’ fearless approach to their art.
In Masters’ book, bassist/guitarist Mark Cunningham talks of “wanting to see how far it could go and still be called music.” Mars was the result of a constant process of attrition, of peeling away all melody and form and function from music. This was a band that wrestled rock music to the mat and had a referee counting time on its survival. It still sounds like a fine way to die.