In February 2001 when At The Drive-In announced their hiatus, when the dust settled and new projects emerged from members of the band, there felt like two camps. The first being entrenched in the camp of The Mars Volta, formed by Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-López; the second being Sparta, led by Jim Ward alongside Tony Hajjar and Paul Hinojos who were joined by bassist, Matt Miller.
In some ways it was hardcore’s version of Blur versus Oasis. With The Mars Volta’s mind-bending dexterity and Sparta’s more straightforward metallic assaults, both bands toured the world to much adoration and acclaim during a time where artists could still actually make a living from art.
Sparta’s Wiretap Scars enjoyed moderate success, and while some of the recordings didn’t quite hold up to the original versions which featured on the band’s Austere EP, it still felt like a vital thread in the post-hardcore patchwork of the early ’00s. Two years later Porcelain followed, and while Hinojos left the band to join The Mars Volta, Sparta would march on to release a third album, Threes, in 2008.
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Following a world tour, the band went their separate ways, with Ward forming the country-inspired Sleepercar as well as releasing a solo album under his own name. It was something he’d always threatened to do, with talk back in 2001 that he was working on an alt-country project with Coldplay’s Guy Berryman.
Ward is the kind of artist that makes you feel like he’s your guy. From his days in At The Drive-In and later with Sparta, he seemed gregarious and approachable. Add to the fact that his music had a strange way of touching your soul, many saw him as a cult-like inspirational figure. An underdog who spoke your language.
Following At The Drive-In’s 2012 reunion tour and the subsequent 2017 LP, in•ter a•li•a (Ward left the band after the tour and was replaced by Keeley Davis), Sparta returned in 2020 with Trust the River – a meandering affair containing the remnants of Sleepercar. Two years later, free of the circumstances which thwarted anyone’s ability to tour, Sparta return with their self-titled, fifth long-player.
With Ward and Miller now functioning as a two-piece, surprisingly Sparta recapture some of the spark from their heyday, with a series of emotionally charged songs that slowly unravel nicely after repeated listens.
Following the politically fuelled opener in Kill the Man, Eat the Man, It Goes and Hello fizz and bang with a natural cadence. Ward has always delivered the kind of melodies that border on anthemic, and here we have two songs that could have easily found their way onto Wiretap Scars.
While Tree Rivers mixes post-hardcore working class grit with homespun warmth and Just Wait sees Ward leaning on the traditions of alt-country, Slip Away and Carry On possess all the hallmarks of what is good within the parameters of indie-rock and post-hardcore. Good, honest numbers that sink into the pores with each listen (“There’s no point of quitting/ There’s no point of walking away”). It’s a message that bleeds into Dark Red Quicksand – a song containing more of Ward’s trademark big-hearted choruses.
It continues on Until the Kingdom Comes. With the kind of rolling waves of sound that would work well as a set closer, it’s the perfect entry point into True to Form, which sees Sparta ending things emphatically. Alongside the poignant closing voiceover which provides a political bookend to the equally gruelling Kill the Man, Eat the Man, this is vintage Sparta (“Action equals action”). With the kind of sonic brawn and sharp vocal delivery, True to Form is up there with the best songs Sparta have written.
With the current state music being the way it is, perhaps albums like Sparta will fall by the wayside. The time afforded to engage with records and give them the necessary time to make their mark ever-shrinking. Those who can afford the time, however, should give it Sparta. An album that most certainly rewards your patience, and while The Mars Volta recaptured some of the magic of their past with The Mars Volta, here Sparta have also conjured up some magic of their own.
Sparta is out now via Inside Out Music. Purchase from Bandcamp.
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