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And upon the Great Schism, they were polarized. As Sparta moved determinedly toward marketability, their brothers in the Mars Volta moved decidedly away from it. Not surprising, given the motives that exploded the Drive-In. But as Wiretap Scars proved, Sparta's discovery of a viable alt.metal niche didn't cost them their caustic intellectualism. Quite the opposite -- it focused the flame. In turn, Porcelain shatters the notion that musical thoughtfulness needs to include weeping and fl├╝gelhorns, or for that matter jarring time shifts and whispers to a scream. These elements appear in their own way throughout -- Jim Ward, Tony Hajjar, Paul Hinojos, and Matt Miller make some momentous noise, and Ward's odd timbre bleeds sincerity. But -- amazingly, 'cause they're on Geffen -- their fibrous grooves, dense watercolors, and peels of shattering guitar arrive unencumbered by label-side meddling, or even the unspoken demands of a cliquey music-fan nation. Porcelain is pure consciousness raising, at once its own powerful statement and a directive straight from the Sparta brain trust to seek out Quicksand and Shudder to Think, to find the soul of Braid, and not just nod heads to its followers. This isn't an indictment of the emo or post-hardcore establishments. But there's just no getting around how much stronger Sparta are than so many of their peers. "End Moraine" teeters on a wire between its tense, busy guitar line and muscular rhythm section as Ward wails himself raw about historical revisionism (Whose? The country's? The band's own? Unclear.) "Guns of Memorial Park" and "Hiss the Villain" fill their multiple angles with roars worthy of Ian MacKaye and intercut strata of angular lead guitar; it's a framework that continues throughout Porcelain, though it never grows tiresome thanks to an ear for pace and meticulous variation. "Lines in the Sand" flattens those arcs and spikes into a gentle slope, and its faraway strings work effectively as valid supporters, not vanity add-ons. "Death in the Family" suggests the martial passion of vintage U2 before fading into the instrumental "Syncope," which is like hearing a guitarist play solo in the stillness of a morgue. The brief piece is also a bridge to the epic "From Now to Never." At nearly nine minutes, it renders each facet of Porcelain in perfect miniature, and emphasizes Sparta's stance as a group working faithfully within the system, but also staunchly and refreshingly outside of it.

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