Album #91: Sparta – Trust the River

  • Released: 2020
  • Origin: El Paso, Texas, USA
  • Label: Jim Ward/Dine Alone
  • Best Track: Empty Houses

As I alluded to in my Strokes review, the break-up of At the Drive-In, and the fallout from it in the years since, has been a source of frustration for me throughout adulthood. The magical quintet of Cedric Bixler-Zavala, Jim Ward, Omar Rodriguez-López, Paul Hinojos and Tony Hajjar that produced In/Casino/Out (1998) and Relationship of Command (2000) have never fully reunited, aside from for a few shows during 2012. And in the various ways they’ve gone since, I feel none of the members have quite managed to recapture the energy, innovation and control ATDI exerted in their music.

Don’t get me wrong, the Mars Volta were good, but they had a tendency to be a little arty and experimental. When they just went mental they were marvellous, but many of their tracks meandered on, meaning you had to listen to eight or minutes of abstraction to sample 45 seconds of frenzied joy. This is not a popular opinion, but I actually thought they finally nailed it on 2012’s Noctourniquet, which had a newfound punchiness to go alongside their trademark experimentation, aided by the peculiar drumming patterns of new member Deantoni Parks. But, in typically contrary Cedric and Omar fashion, the band packed it in soon after that.

Four of the five golden-era members reformed At the Drive-In a few years back and released the comeback album In•ter a•li•a in 2017. Sadly, I thought it fell flat. It almost felt like what you would get if you instructed an AI program to write an At the Drive-In record. The pieces were all there, but the songs just weren’t that great.

The member who remains at large is Jim Ward, who since 2001 has fronted Sparta. I wonder if Ward was an important moderating influence in the band and reined the other members in a bit, compressing drawn-out outbursts of noodling into manageable album-friendly segments. Sparta, however, have always seemed a little pedestrian to me. It’s as if Ward was the glue that held ATDI together, but glue on its own isn’t that exciting.

Anyway, Sparta are back with Trust the River, their fourth album and their first in 14 years. And I’m pleased to say, it’s very good. I was surprised by the lead single ‘Believe’, which seemed almost folk and country-influenced, but once I’d got over the unexpected sound, I realised it’s not a bad song at all.

The post-hardcore roots haven’t completely gone, as evidenced by the two-minute romp of ‘Cat Scream’ and the ending of ‘No One Can Be Nowhere’, but the direction Sparta have taken is comparable to that of Thrice in recent years – less emo, more alt-rock and grunge. I hate the word ‘mature’, but it does seem to apply to this record, with tender, reflective ballads like ‘Dead End Signs’ appearing, along with the superb ‘Empty Houses’.

‘Miracle’ is great grower and builder, while the female guest vocals (I’m not able to find out whose they are, sadly) add a beautiful touch to ‘Spirit Away’. It really is a strong album, with no bad or even mediocre track, making Trust the River a contender for the most pleasant surprise I’ve had from an album this year.

Perhaps its time to stop holding Relationship of Command up as the yardstick against which everything done by the current and former ATDI members should be judged. Ward and his band have done something pretty different here, and it’s the best work I’ve heard from Sparta to date.

Still, if the five of them ever fancy giving it another go…

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