Every band split in two inevitably results in feuds over which faction is better. There are the Frank Black fans against Breeders fans. There are Wilco fans against Son Volt fans, though Wilco inevitably wins that one. And then there were the Pretty Girls Make Graves fans against the “any band that Spencer Moody is in” army. Well, the same goes for Sparta and The Mars Volta. Both At the Drive-In offshoots kept elements of the El Paso quintet’s music in their respective debut albums, Wiretap Scars and De-Loused in the Comatorium. But unlike all the aforementioned bands, the split here was much more obvious. While The Mars Volta explored prog freak-out territory, Sparta played it relatively safe, sticking mainly to radio-friendly rock, keeping the guitars loud and the choruses catchy. Scars was nice enough, though some fans were hoping for something more challenging and less annoying than Volta.
Sparta must have taken the hint, as their sophomore full-length, Porcelain, shows the band more comfortable with themselves as songwriters and performers. Maybe it was the endless touring with bands like Incubus and Weezer that ingrained a newfound knack for arena-ready anthems, but these Texans have returned with a sound much bigger and more epic than that of their previous record.
According to the album’s press release, all of the songs were written in Joshua Tree, California, which may explain the U2 influence on many of the songs. Opener “Guns of Memorial Park” sounds like a highly amplified version of the legendary Dubliners, circa Boy. Vocalist Jim Ward even sounds a bit like Bono, which, eventually, every rock singer does at some point. Elsewhere, like on the six-minute “Lines in Sand,” the band reminds one of a later, more anthemic version of said Irish band. Guitarist Paul Hinojos plays an aquatic sounding flange-guitar riff that almost sounds like some sort of mutation of The Edge’s delay heavy style.
But all this talk of U2 shouldn’t lead one to believe that the band has completely abandoned the heavy post-hardcore sound that they started with. “Guns of Memorial Park,” as mentioned before, coupled with follower “Hiss the Villain,” are a one-two-punch that begins the album with straightforward rock intensity. Elsewhere, as in “End Moraine” and “Death in the Family,” Sparta cranks up the distortion and charges through some Quicksand-like punk rock.
For as many bright spots, however, there tends to be a bit of overindulgence on the part of the band, which is a step forward from playing it too safe, but still unnecessary. “P.O.M.E.” is a needless drum transition, and “From Now To Never” is almost nine minutes long. Though some bands are more tailored to writing longer songs, Sparta’s strength lies in their ability to write four-minute pop songs. While the track drags a bit, they should be commended for at least giving it a shot. And though Mars Volta fans probably won’t be convinced with Porcelain, those who stuck with Sparta will be glad they did.
U2 – War
At the Drive-In – Relationship of Command
Rival Schools – United by Fate
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.