Because it seemed as good a way as any to get warmed up for my review of this second album from Sparta, I did a quick bit of online research into the Greek city-state from which the band takes its name. A brief history
by Richard Hooker characterized the warrior Spartans as a people who lived lives centered on "discipline, self-denial, and simplicity." This stood, of course, in marked contrast to their main rivals in culturally rich Athens, where the populace emphasized the arts and learning as much as skill in battle.
It's very tempting to project Hooker's description onto Sparta the band, as the post-punk quartet reins in some of the artier tendencies of its predecessor group, At the Drive-In, to make music that is certainly more disciplined and simpler than, say, prog-influenced the Mars Volta (which features the other two ex-ATDI guys). That said, Porcelain
marks a strong step forward from Sparta's somewhat tentative debut full-length of two years ago, with singer/guitarist Jim Ward growing into the frontman's role, his voice confidently ranging from a whisper to a sob to a scream in ways we couldn't have anticipated back in the days when he was limited to providing the occasional co-lead vocal in ATDI.
While it would be over-thinking things a tad to label Porcelain
a "song cycle," a strong sense of loss permeates the album's 14 tracks. Key lines woven throughout these tunes play like homages to a lost civilization, a place misplaced that may one day be found again if we can just make it through. From "La Cerca": "These hills in our hometown/ Disguise the beaten down/ Can't turn a blind eye anymore." "End Moraine" brings "The past is what we learn/ It upholds your glory/ Revisionist history." From the brilliant epic "From Now to Never": "Scars are for a reason/ Remind us of what happened/ Stay away from harm/ Be ready/ We're tired of fiction/ And occupied stations" and "If we have torn the map to pieces, you'll find your way home/ 'Cause home is where you believe." It all climaxes in the album's near-final lines, from the fiercely martial "Splinters": "Freedom's lost its clarity and breathing comes fast/ This escape is essential to live another day."
Other times the loss seems far more personal, as in the lyrically direct "Travel by Bloodline," on which Ward eulogizes a relative over his and Paul Hinojo's thick, driving rhythm guitar parts, the song culminating with the singer repeatedly screaming "I miss you," the final one drawn out more than 10 seconds, his voice absolutely shredded and spent in the end, the listener's ears and heart similarly spent.
Elsewhere, Ward's expressive voice and pen show a surprisingly deft touch, dropping devastatingly simple yet effective lines like the alienated "I want to be welcomed, not just tolerated" on "La Cerca." And just when you think he may go into full-on miserable-bastard mode, the bridge of "Breaking the Broken" gives way to Ward's repeated "I wouldn't trade what I got/ Not for anything/ Not for anything" while the band turns the volume down behind him, drummer Tony Hajjar's crafty fills offering reinforcement to Ward's graceful declaration. "Lines in Sand" offers soft funk on the verses, one guitar doing a muted chicken scratch while the other wails and wahs, then exploding on the choruses as Ward painfully paints a picture of a world at constant war with itself.
Sparta demonstrate just how tight a band can be when three-fourths of its members have played together for a decade (bassist Matt Miller being the newbie). The players work together in lockstep, from the quiet/loud dynamics of "While Oceana Sleeps" to the slight stutter of "Hiss the Villain" to the simply bludgeoning effect of "End Moraine." And just when it seems that they're permanently stuck in alt.punk.metal mode, Sparta bring out a quietly effective piano for the latter half of the sumptuous penultimate track, "From Now to Never."
A listen back through At the Drive-In's catalog strongly suggests that even with the departure of that band's lead singer and lead guitarist for the Mars Volta, Sparta carries on ATDI's intense flame. (Conversely, after listening to the Mars Volta for a spell, it's clear that that band's only clear linkage to ATDI is Cedric Dixler's powerhouse voice.) This is intense, serious music for serious times, and writing off Sparta as the "other," less interesting half of their previous group would be a major mistake.