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Date Released: July 13, 2004
- Guns of Memorial Park
- Hiss the Villain
- While Oceana Sleeps
- La Cerca
- Breaking the Broken
- Lines in Sand
- End Moraine
- Death in the Family
- Travel by Bloodline
- From Now to Never
The unfortunate thing about Sparta is that the band will never really be able to free themselves of criticism for not being At the Drive-In. That's a shame, because their second full-length Porcelain is a determined display of what happens when Jim Ward finally gets to exploit his own pop sensibilities and throw the gauntlet down on his own vision of what At the Drive-In could've sounded like had Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala (as they were then known) not dropped acid into both their afros and their songs for that extra something. While The Mars Volta melted minds with their prog-rock lark, that other El Paso quartet moved steadily toward accessibility. If Wiretap Scars was a poor rendition of Relationship of Command, Porcelain is something else entirely, a nod to early U2, a chance to try and remove themselves from the comparison charts. It only partly works, but for Sparta in particular, that's a huge victory and something they'll take if they can get it.
The first eight tracks are singles in waiting, to put it simply. Guns of Memorial Park begins with pounding drums (...Arcarsenal) and a distant siren before Jim Ward, his vocals a complete revelation on this album, shows how his melodic sensibilities have come forth in the time between the Wiretap recordings and these. In two years, he's refined his talents to become more Bono than Bixler. Hiss the Villain is a great track that wastes no time whatsoever to get going, while one of the truly notable tracks, While Oceana Sleeps, is a pseudo-political mid-tempo rocker that sounds boring on paper but surprises with its immediacy. In fact, a lot of these lyrics could be considered pseudo-political...
But what politics is he speaking of? That is the biggest lyrical question of Porcelain. It is clear Ward has retreated to simpler rhymes and words that are more clear about his mood than Wiretap Scars, but instead of clearing up the topic, it conversely muddies the subject further. Lines like "You can hear the sound / When walls break down / You wasted my days / Building on shaky ground / You can't carry on / When walls break down" from the chorus of While Oceana Sleeps sound like national politics, but it could just as easily be about a girlfriend... Or ex-bandmates. Indeed, the subtle jabs here and baiting there in the lyrics ("I wouldn't trade what I got / Not for anything" on first single Breaking the Broken? Hmm...) suggest Ward is more than frustrated at the dissolution of his previous band. What holds this theory up further: Paul Hinojos left the band roughly a year after this album's release to join none other than... The Mars Volta.
Perhaps he was fed up with Ward's prodding, because the music hadn't stagnated. End Moraine is a fabulously nervous anthem for the disenfranchised of "revisionist history." Another strong point of this album is the percussion: Tony Hajjar never slackens off and, though P.O.M.E. is a needless drum solo with little interest to the overall effect of the album, his performances keep songs together remarkably well. The epic From Now to Never is, at nearly nine minutes, a noticeable first stab at expanding their sound, and Splinters closes on a strong note.
For better or worse, the schism that divided maybe the best loud rock band of the new millennium has produced some interesting music. Sparta may be the more conservative arm of that split, but don't sell them short: They are moving forward in a clear, distinct direction. That, at least, is something they have going for them. - PMasterson