While Psalm Zero may have been a collaboration between Andrew Hock and ExLife’s Charlie Looker on paper, it had always been Looker’s child, his DNA that permeated every note. Following Hock’s departure/removal prior to the release of Stranger To Violence, it isn’t surprising that the project has continued with such confidence; what is intriguing, though, is how natural this new iteration feels. Capably backed by Ron Varod and Keith Abrams (both Kayo Dot alumni) on bass and live drums respectively, Sparta transforms Looker’s project into something that might look and sound like a traditional ‘metal’ band yet retains the sense of arcane industrialism that dominated their previous releases.
It wouldn’t be remiss to call this an eclectic album. The addition of Abrams and Varod has turned the project into a bona fide power trio that can deliver some real oomph to the record’s sludgier moments. Like the juddering and even ugly intro of The Last Faith, and Abrams in particular feels like the most overtly metal element this band could have possibly added.
But for every moment of bite and bile, there’s a sweeping melody to balance it out, a hint of romantic sweetness or that perverts Looker’s flair for the gothic and transforms it into something, not quite beautiful, but hardly unpalatable either. There are even a few whiffs of cheese – the occasional epic solo, a fluttering choir of “Oooh!”s – that offset the weight even further and add plenty of charm. These flirtations with leaden sludge and twinkling pop provide enough ammunition to fit Sparta firmly in the art-rock mould but a few diversions push it into even stranger, more avant-garde territory.
[Return To Stone is] a vocal duet between Looker and Lingua Ignota’s Kristin Hayter, it’s an immensely powerful piece that fully flexes both artists’ considerable talents…
Shibboleth is a brief interlude but its focus on medieval folk sets it apart from the album’s core sound while maintaining the religious air that Looker has made part of his sound, but if that flirts with religiosity, Return To Stone is positively pious. Essentially a vocal duet between Looker and Lingua Ignota’s Kristin Hayter, it’s an immensely powerful piece that fully flexes both artists’ considerable talents, Hayter’s notes resonating with pain and ominous portent while Looker is content to act as the choir, his baritone offering a striking contrast against his foils emotional resonance.
It feels like an album that could have been built around this performance alone, which makes it a bittersweet inclusion to a record where its function seems more to serve as diversion, than centrepiece, but as stated earlier, this is an eclectic record. Though closer A Pill is never really able to capitalise on the infectious melodies that dominate the album’s first half, or on the haunting atmosphere of the songs that immediately precede it. It’s a rare misstep in a bold release that capably folds in countless disparate elements that somehow manage to work through a combination of clever song writing, strong focus on dynamics and the impressive interplay of its players.
Sparta is an odd beast by all estimates, but there’s no shortage of wonder for those who care to explore it.
Scribed by: Dave Bowes