Current Choice Spartan discipline

Sparta: the lesser-known offshoot of At the Drive-In

When heralded El Paso indie-rock band At the Drive-In disbanded in 2001, it quickly split into two diverse outfits: Sparta and the Mars Volta. Sparta boasted three-fifths of the old At the Drive-In lineup and burst out of the gate first, with a four-song EP in 2002. But unlike the storied Peloponnesian War, this battle of border rockers has not been kind to the Spartan cause.

While the Mars Volta earned critical raves - and a number-four debut on the Billboard album chart - for its new album, Frances The Mute, Sparta quietly tours behind last year's indifferently received Geffen release, Porcelain. The contrast between their situations must be particularly galling to the members of Sparta because the Mars Volta is reaching a mass audience with eccentric, adventurous musical suites that incorporate Latin rhythms and jazz harmonies, while Sparta struggles to connect with music that is considerably more radio-friendly.

Sparta singer-guitarist Jim Ward recently hinted at a vague sense of missed opportunities when he told Billboard: "Definitely for me, I felt like there was a momentum that for some reason has been lost. I'm not really prepared to understand why I feel that way."


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Truth be told, Porcelain was an admirable effort, combining the discordant textures of Ward's old band with blatantly Bono-esque vocal grandeur (most notably on "White Oceana Sleeps") and guitar-pop hookiness ("La Cerca").

Ward describes Porcelain as a kind of summing-up, and he's anxious to stake out new territory with the band's next recording. In what looks like an attempt to revitalize itself, Sparta has launched a month-long tour of small clubs, allowing the group to test new material and rework its back catalog. It might even be able to take its first steps out of the Mars Volta's shadow.

By Gilbert Garcia

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