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Pity the group that earns a spot in Courtney Love’s heart. Just after Kurt Cobain’s litigious widow bestowed next-Nirvana honors on At the Drive-In, the group imploded amid a swirl of intramural strife, creative dissipation, and, worse, really boring live shows. ATDI did leave behind one amazing artifact, however. Relationship of Command, the group’s 2000 swan song, hints at genuine greatness: 11 tracks of machine rage, punk bliss, and indie charm, all delivered with the force of a well-used blunt instrument. (Think Husker Du and then turn up the volume. No, louder. There.) Still, tough guys though they were, the poor fellas of ATDI never stood a chance—not after Courtney’s kiss of death.
Now comes Sparta, which formed in El Paso, Texas, in 2001 after ATDI went on “indefinite hiatus” status. The new band features Paul Hinojos, Jim Ward, and Tony Hajjar from ATDI, plus newcomer Matt Miller, who holds down bass duties. Only ATDI’s Cedric Bixler and Omar Rodriguez (now playing together in the Mars Volta as well as dub outfit De Facto) are missing.
Unfortunately, that means Sparta is missing quite a lot, especially with Bixler, who, along with Ward, founded ATDI in 1994. In that band, the man had exactly one vocal style: manic intensity. But he cultivated it with obsessive-compulsive dedication, and it meshed perfectly with the rough-edged, vaguely emo-ish din his bandmates typically kicked up behind him. Bixler also had a weird way with words, frequently combining a voyeur’s eye for creepy detail with a propagandist’s ear for intriguing slogans. I have no idea what “phonetic paralysis/Inflicted through morality” could possibly mean, but it sure sounded cool when Bixler shouted it on “Rolodex Propaganda,” Relationship’s most caustic fight song. Still, it was the singer’s high-pitched shriek that shoved the group’s best tracks in the direction of (guess you have to call it) arena indie, putting ATDI into contention for the same massive audience that had flocked to other angsty, smart-boy bands such as Rage Against the Machine, the Offspring, and, oh, yes, Nirvana.
On the evidence of Sparta’s full-length debut, Wiretap Scars, I’d say Bixler’s old comrades are aiming a lot lower. The group seems cautious where ATDI was unhinged, orderly where the earlier band was tumultuous. In a word, Sparta’s music is meticulous. In another word, it’s earnest. The raucous roar of “Sans Cosm,” for instance, feels way too tightly wound and well-rehearsed, with the band pulling back right on cue—just in time for a gently fingerpicked, “Dust in the Wind”-style guitar interlude. True, on the throbbing disc-closer, “Assemble the Empire,” Sparta does try to get a little playful, with dueling, intertwined guitars vying with a Morse-coded rhythm attack for sonic supremacy. But ultimately, the track is just another carefully plotted plodder: It’s all grind and no bump. Even the requisite fist-raising chorus is a bore.
And that goes double for album-opener “Cut Your Ribbon,” which sounds suspiciously like a complicated physics problem as solved by Smashing Pumpkins. The rhythm is reflexively tricky, the chord changes gratuitously epic. Admittedly, Ward does make an admirable vocal effort, but his monochromatic shout is no match for Bixler’s force-of-nature howl. And sloganwise, a worn-out tried-and-truism like “How can you sleep at night?” isn’t likely to stick in anyone’s craw.
Most of the disc’s other tracks are similarly styled, ticking but oddly enervated windup toys that the band sets in motion amid thick waves of pulsating distortion and overheated, thought-to-death arrangements. Even rumbling slow-burners such as “Collapse,” “Cataract,” and “Echodyne Harmonic” build inevitably to their predictable, cymbal-crashing crescendos. Each track is interchangeable with the others (file under: Obligatory Change of Pace), but “Echodyne Harmonic” wins the clone wars, featuring an elegant piano part nicked, I swear, straight from the heart of Seal’s 1995 hit “Kiss From a Rose.” It’s easily the disc’s most surprising moment—not to mention its best stolen idea.
And that’s just it: The music Sparta specializes in has been made better (and oh so often) before. Underpraised pre-mo groups such as Hose Got Cable and Knapsack chimed in more convincingly ages ago, and even the connect-the-dots product issued by kiddie-punk outfits such as Jimmy Eat World and blink-182 (with whom Sparta shares producer Jerry Finn) packs more of a wallop—if for no other reason than that those groups at least occasionally leaven their pro forma distortion and loud-soft dynamics with crafty pop hooks and a catchy melody or two. But not the aptly named Sparta, which sticks stoically to its rigid rule book, acting as if satisfying anyone’s pleasure principle would betray the high ideal of precise heaviosity. To put it mathematically—as the band would likely prefer—Sparta’s music is a barely modulated sine wave, tracking right through punk-infused metal, overwrought song structures, and even more overwrought vocalizing.
Such single-mindedness makes Sparta a dull band, one that seems obsessively enamored with its well-organized little cage. The boys of At the Drive-In at least rattled theirs; occasionally, they even broke on through to the other side. But on Wiretap Scars, Sparta has no time for that kind of silly sonic hedonism. I’m guessing that even Courtney Love doesn’t like these guys—and that, when you think about it, is really a damn shame. CP