Thursday, August 6, 2009

#147. 'Can you escape these motives?'

Trying to discuss Sparta without diverting too far into my love of At the Drive In is difficult, but since I want to save my ATDI material for a later date I'm gonna try to limit talking about them here as much as I can.

The end of At the Drive-In was probably the first time in my initial foray in to music-geekdom that a band's breakup really hit me. All my other favorites at the time were either long dissolved or just starting up and have yet to crack, but ATDI's dissolution was a real blow as far as I was concerned. It was also the first time that the concept of following a band's members into other projects became a necessity as far as I was concerned. So in late 2002 when the two halves of ATDI were releasing their first bits of new material I went forth to the mighty Kazaa and grabbed what I could find. My best recollection is that this amounted to one track from each project: The Mars Volta's "Cut That City" and an early version of today's entry, Sparta's "Cut Your Ribbon."

The short version is that neither one could dull the loss of ATDI, but I played the shit out of "Cut Your Ribbon" and kinda let "Cut That City" sit on the sidelines. The latter was more intriguing than it was replayable, and really did nothing to prepare me for what The Mars Volta were going to do when De-Loused in the Comatorium hit. "Cut Your Ribbon" on the other hand, even without the second guitar or as fierce a drum performance as on the Wiretap Scars version , had laid Sparta out perfectly: They were a streamlined ATDI, minus a lot of the abstraction. If either band was gonna capitalize on the groundswell of support that ATDI was riding when they broke up, I would have put money on it being Sparta over The Mars Volta based on the limited evidence I'd collected. Of course that was before TMV fully revealed themselves, but it still doesn't make sense that Sparta never made that many waves, and makes even less sense that something as driving and insistent as "Cut Your Ribbon" couldn't make a dent in modern rock radio.

It might not have helped that the whole song is an exercise in keeping the listener slightly off balance. There are some moments of respite, but they're fleeting as soon enough the song careens into some more off-center patterns. Most of the credit for this goes to drummer Tony Hajjar, who's work in ATDI was sorely under-appreciated, as he manages to find every single offbeat in the guitar riff and drum there and only there at key moments. Listen to the second half of the repeated verse pattern and focus only on his drumming; it's a little bit ahead of the guitar at all times but not in an 'I can't drum' way. It's purposefully offset and seems to ratchet up the tempo ever so slightly while the guitars are playing the same basic pattern they have been from the start without any increase in speed. It's a tricky technique, but coupled with the oddly voiced chords in the guitar riff it makes the whole song feel that much more unbalanced, perfectly complimenting Jim Ward's vocals and lyrics.

Now, I'm not 100% sure what anyone in ATDI's lyrics mean most of the time, but Ward's a lot less impenetrable than his former vocal foil Cedric Bixler-Zavala. It's clear that "Cut Your Ribbon" is on some level about trying to escape guilt over something but not ever managing to get away from it, but when it's conveyed by lyrics like 'I will find you/like a glacier/cuts the seabed/leaving canyons/in your cheekbones' or 'Conscious, vicious/it has found you/monovision/synapse fails you' it's hard to figure it out to any level of certainty. Ward's delivery of those lines tells the story much better than the lyrics on their own. He's not at the levels of mania that Zavala lived on during ATDI's run but he's closer then he ever got then. The delivery of the verses is closer to Ian MacKaye at his most enraged than anything Ward did in ATDI. It's harsh, menacing and more than anything impossible to ignore. Working on the assumption that this is a man's deepest guilt speaking to him it's exactly what you'd expect...until the bridge. Sure the vocals in the chorus had moments of calm, but when the whole band winds down during the bridge (and co-guitarist Paulo Hinojos starts into a simple, envelope filter enhanced solo) Ward trails off to a whisper and repeats five words: 'Can. You. Escape. These motives.' It's basically a reiteration of the chorus' 'How can you sleep at night?' but the radical tonal shift of the bridge makes the message loud and clear: Can you live with what you've done? Are you strong enough to stop dwelling on your mistakes? Of course the way the band roars back after that makes the point loud and clear: you can't.

It's not particularly heavy stuff on a philosophical level, but the rendering of it, the ferocity and drive that Sparta possessed at this point, made the whole thing that much more exciting. Later Sparta singles found greater success, though none the level that they really deserved, but from where I stand they never matched their initial burst.

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