Show Review: Sparta with KI:Theory at The Independent, 5/21/2012

by Jonathan Pirro on May 23, 2012

Assemble the empire

Assemble the empire

Rising from the ashes of a former band can be a help or a hinderance to a new act that has cut their teeth in the music scene and is ready to unleash a fresh new set of tunes to the world. When you are as volatile and chaotic of an act as At The Drive-In, it can safely be said that people will be waiting to see where your musicians will head and what songs they will craft next. While the afro-clad frontmen of the El Paso post-hardcore quintet went on to form The Mars Volta, and burst back into the world with a mindbendingly-wild blend of fusion punk and Latin-flavored experimental prog rock, co-founder Jim Ward and drummer Tony Hajjar followed in their original band’s aggressive-but-pensive footsteps with the newly formed quartet known as Sparta. While both bands endured their respective sets of ups and downs in terms of popularity and following, and despite the titanic response of the reformation of At The Drive-In all but eclipsing the enthusiasm for their sister acts, Ward and his cohorts have lost none of the furious passion that drives the aptly-named four-piece, and on Monday night, they returned to San Francisco to prove just how excited they were to share their rekindled energy with their most devoted fans.

Joel Burleson of KI:Theory

Joel Burleson of KI:Theory

In 2005, Ward, Hajjar and bassist Matt Miller were joined by guitarist Keeley Davis, already well known in the post-hardcore scene for his marvelous work with the Virginia-based acts Engine Down and Denali, to round out the current lineup of Sparta. In keeping with the spirit of Davis’ hometown, and no doubt owing to a collaboration done with Davis’ sister Maura (also from Denali), the electronic thunderstorm known as KI:Theory kicked off the evening at San Francisco’s Independent. Lead songwriter Joel Burleson was a blur of motion, furiously attacking his synth pads and collection of dials and knobs to create a dense wall of warbling tunes and thudding waves, while drummer Ash Bruce proceded to beat the living daylights out of his drumkit, all amid a forest of bright, pulsing light bulbs that cast sharp silhouettes across the stage. For many songs, Burleson tore the mic from his desk, violently throwing himself back and forth across the small stage, his bellowing producing a sound akin to a wounded alien as it ground its way through the layers of electronics. While perhaps not the same musical style as the act that would follow them, the duo of KI:Theory packed enough sonic destruction into their half-hour set to demolish a solid brick wall, and served as an excellent start for the evening to come.

Jim Ward of Sparta

Jim Ward of Sparta

It was with no fancy fanfare or sonorous musical introduction that Sparta walked onto the stage — only the drop of the house lights and the earsplitting scream of the crowd that had packed the Independent from front to back. Not deciding to waste a moment with their time onstage, Ward and his fellow musicians tore directly into the set with a scalding performance of “Guns Of Memorial Park”, the opening track from their sophomore release Porcelain. The rock-solid precision of the band was matched by the ecstatic thrashings of Davis and Miller, with Ward pinballing between the two at any moment that he wasn’t delivering his own attack to the mic itself. It took but moments for the audience to react to the dynamite display that was taking place onstage, and soon the people crowded about became a churning, spiraling mass of dancing fury — and this was only within the first few songs.

Jim Ward and Tony Hajjar of Sparta

Jim Ward and Tony Hajjar of Sparta

The energy that is displayed by Sparta is wonderful to behold, both because of its own intensity and also because of how visually trackable it is within the members of the band. Davis was easily the most animated member of the group, occupying his own corner of the stage with unparalleled ferocity and disobedience to gravity, while Miller still kept a solid groove down despite swinging his own bass axe back and forth near the amp stacks. Ward and Hajjar took most of their cues from each other, with the pair exchanging glances and grins for most of the evening, all the while further communicating the band’s joy at coming back to play for their fans in the city of San Francisco. The movements and measures within the songs snapped each of the players into motion, with Ward continuously pouncing at Miller and Davis, often pulling them towards the center of the stage, as they knocked out the explosive bridges and choruses that accompanied each song of their set.

A playful brawl

A playful brawl

Sparta’s set was nearly perfectly split between their three records, so favorites both old and new were present in the list of songs that they delivered for the evening. The biggest reactions were seen during songs from Wiretap Scars, including “Mye” and “Collapse”, with some selections from Threes, such as “Taking Back Control” and “Untreatable Disease” also getting the crowd to a fist-pumping, foot-stomping frenzy. A treat was offered to their onlookers when Ward and the others let loose a snarlingly intense performance of “Born And Buried”, a B-side from Threes that the band had rarely, if ever, performed live before; in addition, the band threw in a newly written cut named “Chemical Feel” near the end of the set. Rather than the time-honored but decidedly formulaic habit of leaving the stage for their encore, Ward introduced the last two songs of the set by declaring that “if there was gonna be an encore, this would be it”, and demolished the rest of the night with their cult favorites “Cut Your Ribbon” and “Air”, the latter of which saw Ward climbing into the crowd, armed with his GoPro-clad mic stand, and surfing upon the hands of their cheering audience, while the rest of Sparta rent the air with sonic mayhem and catatonic thrashings of their bodies and instruments, echoing the chaos that surrounded them.

The bliss of beginning replaced with an end

The bliss of beginning replaced with an end

I have managed to catch The Mars Volta eight times in their lifespan, and have never witnessed At The Drive-In, but until this performance had never before been able to see Sparta perform, and I am sorry for missing this opportunity over the past decade. Ward, Hajjar, Miller and Davis are a tour de force in and of themselves, with their stunning power matched only by their ever-evolving songwriting and the marvelously positive energy that they displayed onstage. Here is a band that is simply overjoyed at coming back to play after a nearly 4-year hiatus, and if the roof-lifting cheers by their stalwart fanbase is any indication, they have returned at the best time possible, and are here to take the world by storm once again.

Sparta's setlist

Sparta's setlist

Additional photos from the show below. All photos © 2012 Jonathan Pirro.

KI:Theory:

Jonathan Pirro

Off-kilter multimedia enthusiast.

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