It seems Sparta may never shed the label of being an At the Drive-In spin-off band. The dearly missed quintet that bore three of Sparta’s four members may be gone, but as long as the many bands it influenced are still around, it can’t possibly be forgotten. Sparta’s indelible attachment could be seen as something of a crutch, giving the band both high expectations and the image of a second-string replacement. But with their sophomore full-length, Porcelain, Sparta has finally realized that they may as well embrace their genealogy. ATDI was only beginning to realize its potential with Relationship of Command when it unexpectedly imploded, and Porcelain finally sees the band members picking up where they left off.
Their 2002 debut full-length, Wiretap Scars, is logically Sparta’s kicking-off point, but that album was far too immature and unfocused to truly gain the title of an ATDI follow-up. Last year’s highly acclaimed De-loused in the Comatorium by the Mars Volta (which boasts the remaining two-fifths of At the Drive-in) was mostly regarded as the cohesive effort that fans had been waiting for. But Porcelain‘s opener alone puts all other attempts to bridge the gap from At the Drive-In to bed.
"Guns of Memorial Park" kicks off with a beat hugely reminiscent of the driving rhythm that blew open Relationship of Command, which sparks an immediate explosion of multi-tracked guitars and Jim Ward’s presently yearning vocals. Formulas remain fairly consistent throughout the album: Chunky guitars and pounding drums lay out a foundation for Ward’s intense melodies and guitarist Paul Hinojos’s high-pitched, almost Nintendo-friendly guitar lines. The energy is constant, even in the face of drawn-out almost-jam sessions like the piano breakdown of the epic "From Now to Never."
The At the Drive-In resemblance is immediately apparent, but Sparta does let other influences peek through. The sound resembles the guitar onslaught that ATDI put to such effective use, but the song structures are far more complex. Weaving seamlessly through countless sections and varying intensity, tracks like "Lines in Sand" take on an epic, Pink Floyd-like feel. Sparta seems to approach some electronic experimentation, but only shows it through sheepish drum machine intros and interludes. Their dabbling shows promise for future material, but no real mastery of technology is present on Porcelain, beyond the band’s obvious skill for humongous guitar sounds.
Perhaps most importantly, Porcelain is a stepping-out point for Sparta. They embrace the formulas of their former band, but they squash any premonitions that they’re a second-rate "screamo" act. They play triumphant rock, the kind to play while marching into battle in some futuristic war, armed with guitars and effects pedals. Punk influences are present, but the four members’ musicianship truly rescues the album from repetition. And the sheer intensity of Ward’s voice rescues the album from its unfortunately common lyrical blunders. The man could sing about puppies and make it sound hardcore.
Ultimately, Porcelain is satisfying for its balance. Sparta can tread into dramatic, almost progressive rock without abandoning their roots or experimenting too much. The result is a solid, high-energy album, satisfying both for its At the Drive-In nostalgia kick and for its mile-high rock sound.