Friday, November 4, 2011

Mars: Upcoming Archival Reissues from the Seminal No Wave band

A slew of new archival releases by the quintessential New York City no wave band Mars is slated for the near future. Hatched in 1975 (under the original band name "China"), and finally self-destructing in December 1978, the band played about thirty shows total in their existence, primarily in classic Big Apple clubs such as CBGB's and Max's Kansas City. Fortunately bassist Mark Cunningham dilligently archived recordings from almost all of the events. He has leaked moments out on various releases through the decades, primarily on a rare 1993 CD "Mars Live" (Les Disques Du Soliel Et De L'Acier) as well as the compilation "Mars '78", originally issued on Lydia Lunch's Widowspeak imprint and later expanded as "Mars 78+" on Atavistic Records. Those particular recordings are fairly low in fidelity - albeit listenable - but the upcoming LP to be released on Feeding Tube Records this winter should prove to be the definitive live Mars release. Reputed to be of stunning quality, this document was recorded at Artists Space in May 1978 during the mythic festival which spawned the classic Brian Eno produced release "No New York" (Antilles, 1978 featuring studio tracks by Contortions, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, DNA and Mars). Another album featuring the band's penultimate performance at Irving Plaza in August 1978 may follow soon after. Mark has also assembled a slew of rehearsal tapes which will emerge as a three cassette box. The set includes rarities such as the first version of the group featuring the late Sumner Crane on piano (instead of his usual guitar mutilation) as well as a side of outtakes from the "No New York" session.

Mars, live at CBGB's. left to right: Connie Burg, Nancy Arlen, Sumner Crane, Mark Cunningham
For the uninitiated, the progression of Mars' output gradually descended into a maelstrom of chaos and madness. Their early sound is documented on a debut 7" recorded in September 1977 and released in March 1978 on the French Rebel Records label. Rebel was the label of Michel Estaban, who then went on to help run John Cale's Spy imprint briefly before founding ZE Records with Michael Zilkha. ZE would soon become a major player in the New York Underground scene, releasing full-length efforts by Contortions, Suicide, Kid Creole and the Coconuts and many others. The A-side is a brisk number with propulsive, marching snare drum and endlessly jangling drone guitar work topped by Sumner Crane's urgent vocals. "3E" is still identifiable as a rock and roll song, but it conveys a bracing amateurism, light texture and sense of anti-machismo separating it decidedly from the typical punk rock prevalent at the time. The flipside "11,000 Volts" is a more accurate harbinger of the Mars to come, with its slow-motion drum patter, skittering guitar motifs and Connie Berg's nascent vocal glossolalia. According to Cunningham, the song is about "a sadomasochistic relationship between an imprisoned robot and its cruel keeper", and despite the fact that the lyrics are completely incomprehensible, the music conveys this bleak scenario in an undeniably expressionistic manner. In 1979, ZE Records reissued the 7" as a 12" EP.

The next Mars recordings, from June 1978, appeared as four tracks on the seminal "No New York" compilation album. Clearly the band had chosen to pursue the more abstract possibilites of their concept and these classic cuts are a watershed of ideas. Mark Cunningham's racing bass chords open "Helen Fordsdale" before an onslaught of tom-tom drumming and percussive guitar jabs treated with a jarring, short delay
effect impact the listener. The second guitar whines away in the background, its highest possible pitches elicited with a metal slide played near the bridge. Crane's vocals have now reached the same psychotic incoherence that Burg's feline "11,000 Volts" performance foreshadowed. "Helen" ends where it begins,
suddenly cut off by a stumbling drum figure and a long tail of distant reverb from the voice. "Hairwaves" is something completely different: an insectoid, pointillistic threnody of space and silence. There is an extremely slow bass figure underlying the song as more cricket like guitar chatter and sparse, freely-rhythmic drumming underlines Connie Burg's tortured moans. It is a sonic construction governed by a tight but elusive set of rules, appearing to be completely free, but easily recognizable as a composition. "Tunnel" is a bracing assault of Grand Guinol proportions, led by more martial drumming by Nancy Arlen as Crane's violent gibberish fights for space, spitting manically through a forcefield of guitar racket. The succinct conclusion to Mars contribution on this album is the masterful "Puerto Rican Ghost". The song opens with a pugilistic drum fragment which repeats itself in spite of the song almost immediately heading in another direction, lead by the chanted vocal patterns of Crane, Burg and Cunningham. "Puerto Rican Ghost" is the first evidence of the distinctively disruptive morse-code bass style Cunningham would use as a foundation for many of the future band compositions.

The final studio output by Mars came in the form of the 1980 Lust/Unlust Records release "The Mars EP". The extremely minimal packaging and credits add immeasurable mystery to the impact of the completely warped, deranged contents of this disc. Recorded in December 1978 in an empty theater soon after the group's final concert at Max's Kansas City, the flat, unenhanced live-to-two-track master recording is a clear representation of the culmination of the unit's effort. Immediately, the first track "N.N. End" roars out of the gates, with Cunningham's disembodied bass thrusts, a cloud of static-y white noise guitar, retarded drumming and distant slide guitar glissandos. The vocalists randomly grunt, bleat and scream nonsense and, at one point, some flatulent trumpet is heard. A 15-minute version of this piece is heard on the August 4, 1978 Irving Plaza tape, which features additional six-string torture from Red Transistor/Blue Humans anti-guitar legend Rudolph Grey. "N.N. End" is a nightmarish vision of insanity, as startling today as it must have been when it was made. "Scorn" is more obviously rhythmic, but still extremely disjointed, featuring more brass bronx-cheering before Crane enters with catatonic vocals comprising simply of a series of dates and the title word. There's a hint of African drumming here as the guitars are used percussively rather than tonally. "Outside Africa" raises the aggression again as all four instrumentalists stab away manically in opposing short figures. Connie (or "China" as she is called in the credits) Burg enters with piercingly nasal high-pitched monotone vocals before Crane interrupts her with a short aside. She continues briefly before the entire band breaks down and finally plays an inexplicable, one-second coda. "Monopoly" opens with stampeding drums and sparsely deployed accents from the guitars. Crane enters after 30 seconds with more bizarre babbling countered by quasi-Dopplar-effect vocalizing by Burg. Occasionally, the trajectory is slashed with loud outbursts of slide guitar debris, but the piece is basically one consistent mood throughout. The final piece, "The Immediate Stages of The Erotic" begins with the intermittent shocking sounds of hands manipulating the end a live guitar cable before more spastic African drums enter. Crane caterwauls in a strained falsetto range - eventually lapsing into coughs and fart noises - and Cunningham shouts ancient Egyptian consonants. The sonic gestalt is extremely debased, bordering on infantile. At this point, Mars have completely devolved into total musical destruction. Their mission, accomplished. The complete Mars studio recordings were issued on CD (in 2004 on the Spanish G3G label and 2008 on No More Records) and LP (2005 and 2010 on Important Records), containing a far better sounding master of "The Mars EP" than the original issue (which reputedly used a master tape which had been damaged in a flood).

After Mars was dissolved, Crane, Cunningham and Burg, joined by DNA drummer Ikue Mori, spent a year working on a crazed adaptation of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" renamed "John Gavanti", released on Cunningham's Hyrax label as an LP in 1980, and reissued on CD in 1998 by Atavistic Records. The album, improvised using primarily brass, bass clarinet, guitar and strings, is far more organic and acoustic in nature than anything Mars did, but still has bears all the conceptual hallmarks of their classic approach. Sumner Crane died of lymphoma on April 15, 2003. Nancy Arlen died on September 17, 2006, following heart surgery. Mark Cunningham has lived in Spain for more than a decade. Connie Burg collaborated with Cunningham on the liner notes for the complete studio CD in the mid 2000s. There is no known film or video footage of Mars.