Review: Sparta Relives Wiretap Scars at Bottom Lounge

In the vibrant realm of rock music, where emotions run wild and music serves as an outlet for introspection, the enigmatic band known as Sparta emerges as a true force to be reckoned with. With a mesmerizing blend of raw power, heartfelt lyricism, and a relentless pursuit of musical exploration, this Texan quartet has etched their name into the annals of post-hardcore history.

The story of Sparta begins in the early 2000s, amidst the ashes of At the Drive-In, a groundbreaking band that had shattered boundaries and captivated audiences with their explosive energy. When the dust settled and At the Drive-In disbanded, three key members—guitarist/vocalist Jim Ward, bassist Paul Hinojos, and drummer Tony Hajjar—came together, joined by newcomer Matt Miller on guitar, to embark on a new sonic venture. Thus, Sparta was born.

For the Wiretap Scars' 20th anniversary album tour, the quartet has been pared down to include only Jim Ward on vocals/guitar, Matt Miller on bass, and Chicago’s own Neil Hennessy on drums. This lineup promises a compelling and intimate experience, focusing on the core essence of Sparta's music.

Sparta’s debut album and the tour’s namesake, Wiretap Scars (2003), unleashed a torrent of raw emotion and edgy guitar work. The album stands as a testament to the band's ability to create a dense and atmospheric sonic landscape. The interplay among the guitars, bass, and drums creates a wall of sound that envelops the listener, while the subtle incorporation of electronic elements adds a touch of texture and depth to the music.

Joining Sparta on the Wiretap Scars 20th anniversary US tour are Venezuelan post-rock outfit Zeta and the incomparable and multi-talented Geoff Rickly. Zeta's live performances have been a testament to their electric energy and their opening set at Bottom Lounge on Wednesday night was no exception. I had a faulty memory card but I fortunately was able to salvage some photos of the rest of the show; unfortunately I was unable to upload photos of Zeta, but know that their stage presence and magnificent hair were striking.

Zeta’s hypnotic rhythms, soaring guitars, and emotive vocals showcase the band's ability to seamlessly weave together elements of punk, math rock, and progressive sounds. Tracks like “La Flor del la Palabra”, “Oaya”, and, my personal favorite, “11:11”, mesmerize listeners with their dynamic shifts, unconventional song structures, and poetic lyricism. Known for their frenetic, high-octane shows, the band creates an immersive experience, blurring the line between performer and audience.

In the vast tapestry of alternative rock, where boundaries are blurred and musical exploration reigns supreme, one name stands out as a true visionary: Geoff Rickly. With a multifaceted career spanning decades, Rickly has consistently pushed the boundaries of sound, lyricism, and emotional intensity.

I first became aware of Geoff via his producer credit on the glossy paper insert of an album that I begged my parents for back in 2006, which is still one of my all-time favorites: My Chemical Romance's debut, I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love. However, Geoff's musical career can be traced further back in time to the mid-1990s when he co-founded the influential post-hardcore outfit, Thursday. Rickly's artistic prowess then extended beyond Thursday's domain as he progressed through multiple bands, solo musical endeavors, and new and highly anticipated break out onto the literary scene with his novel titled “Someone Who Isn’t Me”, out on July 25 of this year.

Geoff Rickly’s set on Wednesday night quite literally brought me to tears. His impassioned delivery stripped from the full band’s version adds a new layer of emotional weight. My previous experience seeing Thursday live is a stark contrast to his solo set with only him, his Gretsch, and a laptop from which he triggered the minimal playback accompaniment. His set consisted of primarily Thursday songs, the opening song being “Time’s Arrow” off Common Existence.

The rest of his set was equally powerful and included tracks “This Side of Brightness”, “New Sympathies”, “This Song Brought to You by a Falling Bomb”, “Disappear”, “Understanding a Car Crash”, and “For the Workforce, Drowning”. His stage presence is unique and friendly, pausing often for personal anecdotes between songs and always sharing with a conversational and down-to-earth tone. Geoff Rickly's fearless exploration of sound, kind demeanor, and unwavering commitment to authenticity, has solidified his status as one of my favorite people in the industry.

After a very swift changeover, Sparta members Jim Ward, Matt Miller, and Neil Hennessy took the stage. Sparta's powerful and driving rhythms serve as the backbone of their live show, commanding attention and demanding physical engagement from the audience. The thunderous drums, pulsating bass lines, and dynamic guitar work enveloped Bottom Lounge on Wednesday night, captivating everyone within its reach. Jim Ward, Sparta's front man, possesses a unique blend of talent, passion, and stoicism. His genuine connection to the music and lyrics is palpable.

Matt Miller's bass playing provides a steady and powerful groove, seamlessly locking in with newcomer Neil Hennessy on drums. Despite only playing with Sparta for this tour, Neil's skill and chemistry with the band are undeniable, as if he had been with them since the beginning.

The band's setlist for the Wiretap Scars 20th anniversary tour was a front-to-back play through of the iconic album, showcasing Sparta's commitment to celebrating their musical journey. They were kind enough to include a couple deep cuts like "Breaking The Broken" and "While Oceana Sleeps" off Porcelain (2004), as well as tracks "Empty Houses" and "Miracle" from their latest album Trust The River (2020). My personal favorite touch was the inclusion of "Atlas" off Threes (2006). This track adds another layer of reminiscence and a chance to contemplate Sparta's evolution over the years.

While their stage presence leans toward the somber and serious side, Sparta's seamless transitions between songs, interspersed with moments of crowd interaction and banter, forged a strong connection between the band and audience. The collective energy in the room was electric, with die-hard fans singing along to every word and moving in unison to the infectious rhythms.

Sparta's Wiretap Scars 20th anniversary tour, featuring Zeta and Geoff Rickly, showcases three groundbreaking acts that demonstrate undeniable talent and innovation within often-overlapping genres. The show at Bottom Lounge was a testament to the enduring impact of legendary post-hardcore and the music it has since inspired, where emotion and musical exploration converge to create a truly immersive and unforgettable experience

All photos by Shaela Johnston.

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Shaela Johnston

Shaela is a West-Coast born freelance photographer and writer, relatively new to Chicago as of 2021. Specializing in live music photography, Shaela can be found attending concerts several times a week when she isn't traveling or working on her Bachelor's degree. In her free time she listens to metal, hardcore, hip-hop, and likes to chill at home with her hairless cat named Soup and wife Courtney.