I think it’s safe to say at this point that At the Drive-In has officially disintegrated into little, disparate, utterly unrecognizable bits. Just as any vestige of that previous band was utterly obliterated by this year’s Mars Volta release, the latest release from Sparta sees the less prog-inclined side of At the Drive-In finding a decidedly quieter, more refined, radio-ready sound than they’ve ever tried before. With Threes, Sparta sounds as though it has finally come to terms with the split, allowing the “art” to ever-so-quietly return to the “rock,” and drawing comparisons to Radiohead and U2 in the process.
In drawing comparisons to such established and well-regarded behemoths of the industry, however, it’s also easy to see just how far Sparta still has to travel to find their own identity and truly break from the ghosts of the past, to break from a fanbase that still, deep down, wants this band to be something it’s not. If anything on Threes can make that break, it’s the final track, a little ditty called “Transitions” that sounds an awful lot like the “Rain down on me” section of Radiohead’s own “Paranoid Android”. It’s a quiet, contemplative tune in 6/8 (the perfect time signature for swaying back and forth) that happens to have some surprisingly inventive chord progressions and the equally surprising sound of a soulful female vocalist, one Merry Clayton, backing vocalist on such classics as “Gimme Shelter” and “Sweet Home Alabama”. Clayton’s inclusion does not go to waste, to be sure—her vocals start as simple backing lines, counterpointing Jim Ward’s restrained performance, but by the end, she goes all “Great Gig in the Sky” on us, letting her voice wail as only a true gospel talent can. It’s a fabulous closer, and anyone who doesn’t hold out to the end of Threes will be missing something truly revelatory, at least as far as Sparta songs go.
Of course, to get to the end of Threes is not necessarily an easy task, for in order to do so we must traverse eleven other tracks, songs rife with modern rock clichés and a surprising lack of energy. “Atlas” is, I think, meant to sound epic, what with its slow-burning structure, endless-chant-to-fadeout coda and the less-prominent presence of the aforementioned Clayton, but it’s a little too slow, a little too dreary to inspire anything past indifference. That another slow-burn follows “Atlas” (this time the not-all-that-vicious “The Most Vicious Crime”) doesn’t help the sleepytime vibes. I admittedly like the way that “Red.Right.Return. (Straight in Our Hands)” begins and ends with a fade-in and fade-out of the same drumbeat, but the stuff in the middle is equally unexciting.
And so on and so forth. There’s not much to sing along to, there’s not much to get emotionally attached to, and there’s definitely not much to admire from a technical standpoint. So what’s left?
Well, when Sparta turns to rage, they can still rage with the best of the rock radio bands around today—first single “Taking Back Control” is actually pretty catchy (in a “screaming your lungs out” sort of way), and has deservedly managed to snag the band the best chart positions it’s yet seen for a single. Call and response vocals between Ward and new member Keeley Davis seal the deal, also unintentionally emphasizing how much better the album might have been if Davis were allowed to stretch himself out a little more (though his quieter instrumental influence is all over the album). The chorus of “Weather the Storm” is similarly explosive, the kind of song passage that makes you feel like the wind’s hitting your face and you keep traveling faster and faster until…well, until Jim Ward’s Bono-esque vocal histrionics on the verse and the overlong bridge put on the brakes. But hey, did I mention that chorus?
It’s all enough to leave a listener wishing Sparta would just let loose a little more. The newest incarnation of Sparta has that “trying too hard” sound to it, a sound that’s careful and measured, a sound that sounds just a little too bound to the studio for a rock band. Given their history and even their own past output, Sparta is capable of more. Threes’ attempt at something new is admirable, but apart from a few scattered successes, ultimately not quite successful.