Review Summary: Sparta's third release is an album that improves songwriting and catchiness but they still fail to create a full album of interest. Instead, Threes contains various gems and great moments throughout.
We all know the story of At the Drive-In. At the Drive-In, a post-hardcore band that pushed the limits of the genre with an incredible mix of accessibility and innovation. We all know the story of their breakup as well. Omar Rodriquez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zalava left to form The Mars Volta, a band known for their eccentricity. The remaining members- Jim Ward, Paul Hinojos, and Tony Hajjar left to form their own band, Sparta. Fittingly, the two components of accessibility and innovation divided as the band members divided. The innovation went to The Mars Volta while the accessibility joined with Sparta. Many take this conclusion and assume all the talent went to The Mars Volta as well, but that could not be further from the truth. Sparta consistently puts together fantastic albums. Their music comes nowhere near the innovation and inventiveness of At the Drive-In or The Mars Volta, but the talent is obviously there.
There is no denying Sparta has a fantastic sound. Their musicianship defeats nearly any other band that tries to make music similar to them. The band drives with intensity and fire at some points, and at others they lay back and build a meshed sound of terrific harmonies. Every instrument plays their part of the music with excellent style and virtuosity. Their pedigree serves them well. The band picked Taking Back Control
as their lead single and it certainly makes a great choice. Taking Back Control
is uptempo and allows each instrument to have a chance to be heard, with the bass starting and guitar melodies layering on top. Although a major complaint of Sparta’s past albums has been their music is just too boring and forgettable, they picked up the slack and created easily their most anthemic chorus ever. The backing vocals shout ahhs and ohhs behind Jim Ward’s lead and create one of the most memorable moments in Sparta history. Even past the catchy and obviously single-ready chorus vocals, the songwriting is also some of Sparta’s best. It’s much more uptempo and furious than any of their other work but they still maintain their rhythmic and dynamic contrast. Furthermore, it sounds little to nothing like Invalid Litter Dept. (an At the Drive-In song), a constant sound that appears to be a comfort zone for Sparta.
However, Sparta performs at their best when they step out of their comfort zone. Taking Back Control
and Weather the Storm
, easily the two best songs on the album, both take new spins on the Sparta sound and they sound great. Weather the Storm
, although at a typical leisurely middle-ground tempo, takes a much heavier and epic approach. While not the longest song on the album by nearly two minutes, it could be considered the most epic song on the album due to the great contrast and growth throughout the song. It starts with an introduction of the verse and chorus themes with another great chorus that features a screaming high guitar shining over all the other melodic themes. Despite it being a highlight and a great addition to the sound, Sparta mixes it so it doesn’t overshadow the overall sound, something most bands would never do, afraid of losing its effect. However, the effect is not lost. The best part of the song comes in a wave of contrast. Everything comes down to a bare minimum, a tripletized guitar melody. For minutes, new melodies layer on top and the drums play around with certain grooves to mesh with the melodies. The song grows and grows until an assumed climax, but the song still has more to go into the final chorus, which gives a huge emotional release of tension.
That step outside of the Sparta comfort zone is a welcome change, but a diamond in the rough. The rest of the album falls along their comfort zone, albeit they do it very well. Atlas
is the best example of doing it well, featuring catchy and memorable melodies, something many songs fail to do. It takes a slower tempo and an acoustic guitar as its main melodic theme. As many Sparta songs, it repeats lyrical and melodic ideas heavily. However, these ideas do not bore as they are catchy enough to go on for a while. Atlas
grows throughout, reaching its climax at about 2:30 and staying at that level for the rest of the song. Despite Atlas
, many other songs bore throughout their playtime, not conveying enough memorable moments to create anything spectacular. Crawl
stands out as one of the worst in this category. It follows a groove that might be found in an Interpol song, but the production and mixing of all the instruments just creates a very ambiguous sound. What’s more- the guitar harmonies are quite basic by Sparta standards so even when trying to find something great about the song, there is not much to find. The Most Vicious Crime
, the longest song on the album, is more ambitious than Crawl
but still just as boring. It has promising moments, starting quietly but still intensely, sounding as though a great build is coming. Tribal percussion accents the opening, brooding and all leading up to the awaited climax. The climax could be considered 2:15, but it’s so underwhelming. It only reaches a medium volume and a medium intensity. Then it sits there for minutes. Unfortunately, it lets down the rest of the song and really detracts from what could have easily been an album highlight.
Of course, that could be said about nearly any of the lesser songs on Threes. Every song has immense potential to be great simply due to Sparta’s great musicianship and moments of sheer brilliance. If only they could be a bit more daring, experiment with more new things, and do something new with their typical sound. Sparta could easily rise to the popularity level of The Mars Volta and create an album with as much critical and fan acclaim as them, but they just fall too often into a comfort zone. However, the album is held together by a few superb songs and veiled brilliant moments in other more disappointing songs. Regardless, Sparta is better than most bands out there and it makes a welcome listen in their genre of music.
Taking Back Control
Weather the Storm