The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s called synergy. Musically speaking, four talented individuals will create something greater than what any one of them could create on his own. The power of perfect collaboration can yield a musical solstice that would be impossible under any other circumstance.Unfortunately, when the members of a ground-breaking, iconic band decide to part ways, subsequent musical endeavors are subject to the reverse rule. Side projects and rebound bands get left at the way side, never quite matching the ferocity of the original band’s expression. Billy Corgan’s career has been less than stellar post-Pumpkins, and no one likes Velvet Revolver as much as Stone Temple Pilots – much to Scott Weiland’s chagrin. Other than Justin Timberlake’s exception – those N’Sync boys were holding him back – it’s a universal constant.
The break up of rock group At the Drive-In is one such tale of a great band spawning lesser ones. Comprised of Jim Ward, Paul Hinojos, Tony Hajjar, Cedric Bixler and Omar Rodriguez, the band’s seven-year stint secured itself as one of the most influential and underrated rock bands of the nineties.
Marking the band’s permanent hiatus in 2001 due to creative differences, At the Drive-In’s split gave birth to The Mars Volta and Sparta, two bands of marginal success and opposite direction.
Bixler and Rodriguez began experimenting with the jerky percussion, sweeping anthems and tight-fitting pants of The Mars Volta. Although the new album borders on obnoxious – the band no doubt booked studio time with an array of pedals, effects and the dictum, “let’s see how weird we can be before someone notices” – The Mars Volta has no doubt found its niche.
Ward, Hinojos, Hajjar and new-comer Matt Miller began rocking under the Sparta brand immediately after the break up. Sparta’s sound mimics the edgy vocals and strong song structure of At the Drive-In, though it will forever exist as a less interesting version of its parent band. After the success of 2002’s Wiretap Scars and 2004’s Porcelain, the band’s new album, Threes, is a solid effort but with no real progression.
Does the lack of evolution in a talented band’s discography weigh negatively on the band itself? Quite possibly. When Hinojos left Sparta to play bass with his ex-mates in TMV, Sparta enlisted ex-Engine Down/Denali guitarist Keeley Davis to fill the void. Sadly, Davis has provided no creativity from Engine Down’s endless fount, but has rather been absorbed into Sparta’s circular structure of redundant rock songs. The band’s previous two albums push forward in tempo, lyricism and creativity, written with all the confidence of previous success and nothing to lose. But for many bands, album three can be an Achilles heel. The first album’s defining expression gives way to a sophomore effort that, if done correctly, builds and improves on the original sound. But after that, bands tend to lose focus and direction. They’re in the middle of the ocean with nothing to cling to while the shore fades out of sight.
Sparta is no exception. The band panders. High-pointed songs such as “Taking Back Control,” “Erase it Again” and “False Start” are solidly-structured rock songs with all the peaks and builds you would come to expect. But any of them could just as easily have appeared on their previous albums with none the wiser. And slower songs like “Unstitch Your Mouth” and “Atlas” have confirmed all suspicions that most rock bands can’t write moving ballads.
As a whole, Sparta’s arsenal of songs is dense and complete, Threes included. The album is solid from beginning to end with little exception. But the band’s lack of movement and creativity sits robotically in its desk chair like a middle-aged man working a dead-end job. The talent is there, but there’s nowhere to put it.