Drive Away

Sparta leaves At the Drive-In, expectations and a so-called hiatus behind

It's not terribly surprising, given the trio's history together, that most of Austere sounds very much like songs At the Drive-In probably would have gotten around to eventually. Or already got to: "Cataract" is more or less a companion to Relationship's "Invalid Litter Dept," and Ward's vocals are, occasionally, almost indistinguishable from Bixler's audio acrobatics. Yet Austere is a slightly more accessible version of ATDI's angry and angular prog-punk; the songs are as anthemic as ever but also more focused, with less salt and more sugar. You still can't hear why Ward calls Billy Joel's Piano Man one of his biggest influences, but he comes a little closer.

The real difference is the last song on the EP, "Echodyne Harmonic (D-Mix)," with its ticklish drum 'n' bass bottom and Ward's distorted distress signal ("I'm fading out," he repeats over and over). It's less song than sound, although there's a melody in there somewhere, an electronic excursion that draws a line in the sand, steps confidently away from ATDI's past and into Sparta's future. It wasn't a conscious reaction against their former band, Hajjar says, though he doesn't mind much if people hear it that way.

"One weird thing that happened with the other band is, for some reason, since we recorded with a heavier producer and some of our songs came off really, really powerful and heavy, we were starting to get associated with metal bands and nü-metal bands," he explains. "And that was everything we weren't. That's not for it or against it, it's just everything that we really weren't or weren't trying to be. So that was weird for us. We love people coming to our shows in general, and we always have, but at the same time, we were like, 'Whoa, these guys want to kill each other.' We're not about that. We're, like, wimps." He laughs. "We couldn't jump into a crowd and hurt anybody, even if we really tried, you know? The whole association thing was weird in that respect, and now with this band, we don't have any expectations of ourselves or the product that comes out of this studio. And I think that's the best thing to have. We're not expected to do anything, and we're not trying to do anything. And if you're that free in your spirit, then it's OK."

Break's over, fellas: "A hiatus for everybody else is my life," says Sparta drummer Tony Hajjar, left.
Lisa Johnson
Break's over, fellas: "A hiatus for everybody else is my life," says Sparta drummer Tony Hajjar, left.

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