"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Pitchfork JANUARY 12, 2012 - by Marc Masters
MARS: LIVE AT ARTISTS SPACE
It's hard to pinpoint the beginning of No Wave, the abrasive post-punk movement in late-1970s New York. But its legacy had a big bang. It came in the form of an unnamed festival at Manhattan's Artists Space, spanning five nights in May 1978. Brian Eno happened to attend, and what he saw and heard led him to produce No New York, a scene-defining sampler that remains the most well-known No Wave record. Some claim it also helped kill the scene, but it's doubtful that any of the music would have such a strong ongoing influence without Eno's compilation.
Though No New York included some great work from its four participants - The Contortions, Teenage Jesus & The Jerks, Mars, and DNA - No Wave fanatics have longed for audio documentation of the Artists Space festival itself, and rumors have persisted that tapes exist. In 2008 two Teenage Jesus songs from the fest showed up on a new collection of their work, but that's been it. Now Feeding Tube has worked with Mars bassist Mark Cunningham to offer the entirety of his band's two-set performance on a single LP.
It's fitting that Mars are the first Artists Space participants to get such a release, because the quartet's 1975 beginnings made them technically the first No Wave band. But their elemental importance goes beyond mere chronology. Inside their brief lifespan lie the deconstructive, anti-careerist seeds that drove the movement. Cunningham saw their arc as "a countdown from ten to one," and through their sliver of recorded output - eleven songs totaling barely over a half-hour - the tired rules of rock got pummeled into abstract art-noise.
The same goes for the two sets here, each of which takes up an album side and contains identical songs and running order. When the band revs up with 3E and Helen Fordsdale, their riffy Velvet Underground leanings are apparent beneath amp distortion and vocal squalls. But only a few minutes later, singer Sumner Crane babbles and growls unintelligibly, guitarist China Burg lights string fireworks, and every shard of sound melts like a pile of wicked witches. That path of destruction is even more intense in the darker, nastier-sounding second set. It culminates in a brutal take on Tunnel, as Crane's insane howls make the studio version sound like a dance remix.
Oddly, for a band this wild and abstract, such divergence is rather rare here. Most songs are played live the way Mars played them in the studio, a testament to how controlled and honed their seemingly chaotic music actually was. Where you can hear a difference is in fidelity. Live At Artists Space is somewhat tinny and flat, in a way that could wear out uninitiated ears. Part of that can be chalked up to dated source material. But the second set was recorded on professional equipment by the band's label head, Charles Ball, leading some to suggest reasonably that more mastering care (as well as more imagination in the cover design) could have improved this record significantly.
Still, Mars' performances during that now-legendary weekend are powerful enough to shine through technical limitations. Because their time was so short, the band spent each moment at a high pitch. All their spilling energy had real purpose - to show how quickly and thoroughly rock could be demolished using the tools that built it. Live At Artists Space may hiss, but it also crackles with that enervated inspiration. If it's mostly for aficionados, that's ok - anyone interested in Mars at all is likely a devotee.