Stop fooling yourself again.

The conventional wisdom on Sparkmarker, when there's any such thing to be found, is that their best stuff was recorded with their original lineup, back when Ryan Scott was singing. After he left the band, they recorded an album, "500wattburner@seven", with original guitarist Kim Kinakin on vocals, and although it came out on Revelation subsidiary Crisis, making it their most widely available album, most who already knew Sparkmarker considered it a dropoff in quality. I don't know what kind of sales numbers it did, but I'm pretty sure they were seen as disappointing at the time, and either for that reason or for others, Sparkmarker quickly disappeared.

I've been listening to that album, "500wattburner@seven", a lot lately. The main reason for this, at least initially, was that I'd found a CD copy at a sidewalk sale for a dollar. I'd had a dubbed cassette of the album for years before this, going back to not long after it was released, in fact, but when I finally purchased a copy, I hadn't heard it in a long time. In my memory, it was a Quicksand soundalike that did too little to distinguish itself on most songs, and which slipped into the background too easily. Therefore, I was somewhat surprised when I put it on a few days after purchasing it and found myself being drawn in, in a way I never had been by my old dubbed copy. I don't know what it was that made the difference; maybe I'd just never been in the right mood to connect with it. Either way, I've been playing it a whole lot lately, and I think maybe a reappraisal is in order.

Now, don't get me wrong, it's not a work of genius or anything. The Quicksand influence is indeed readily apparent, and there are a few songs on the record that don't work that well. Furthermore, and this is something I never knew until I bought the CD, there is a hidden "bonus" track that is 28 minutes long and consists of Kim Kinakin reading a short story, made up of a series of diary entries, overtop of a noise track. The first time I played this album, I tried to listen to the entire thing, but after a while, I found myself thinking, "My god, is this EVER going to end?" Eventually, I couldn't take it anymore, and turned it off. Maybe it'd be a bit easier to handle if I listened to the story Kim was telling instead of letting his voice fade into the background. I'm not going to try that anytime soon, though.

I understand why people think this album is of lesser quality than the work of Sparkmarker's original lineup, too. First of all, it's less original, without a doubt. Second of all, the sound Sparkmarker came up with on "500wattburner@seven" is not only similar to Quicksand but seems like what you might get if you attempted to get Quicksand's sound down to a science, and then reduce it to its essential component parts. Sparkmarker sound, on this album, more like Quicksand than Quicksand ever sounded. The entire album revolves around a particular midtempo speed, and the riffs are almost entirely based on repetitively strummed octave chords alternating with off-tempo chugging. I think maybe it's the kind of thing that would get boring for a lot of people. I think it probably used to get boring for me, in fact. But lately I've been finding it hypnotic.

"2:20", the first song, is the one that diverges the most from the album's template. It's slightly faster, slightly shorter, and slightly more spastic than most of the other songs here. The beat is slightly frantic, and Kim spends the chorus riffing on the title; "Two minutes, twenty seconds, twenty-second best... second best ain't good enough!" he finally screams, and the band frantically pounds on the riff behind him. "Chrysanthemum", which follows "2:20", establishes the more typical sound of the rest of the album, slipping into that midtempo groove that will become familiar very quickly. The thing that makes this work for Sparkmarker, when it does work, is that they are able to use hypnotic repetition and lack of tempo shifts to create intensity. Plenty of bands use slow, pounding riffs to do this, and plenty more use blinding speed for the same purpose, but it's rare for a band to attempt intensity through midtempo speeds, and that's because it's hard to do. It's easy to reach for that feeling of shuddering nervousness, but if you don't hit it just right, you end up boring the listener. And sometimes, Sparkmarker come close to crossing that line.

On the better songs here, though, they're in no danger of such a thing. One of these songs is "Keep The Quarter", which begins with strange electrical static that sounds like a connection on an amp shorting out. Soon, another guitar comes in underneath these static sounds, and it quietly brings in the rest of the band, switching from one intro riff to a completely different one once the rhythm section starts playing along. After this intro is over, the guitars dissolve into feedback, then begin chugging quietly along with the bass notes. "We have this nasty habit, and we don't talk about it", says Kim. He mutters darkly over the rest of the verse about pretending that nothing's wrong, ignoring situations that are going bad. The switch from verse to pre-chorus is marked by guitars going from chugging to strumming, as Kim starts yelling, "This is a bad connection, and I feel so disconnected." The song gains intensity in this transition, but picks up even more as the pre-chorus moves into the chorus. The chords the guitars are playing ascend, and Kim's voice becomes more strident, finally reaching a crescendo at the chorus. "Tell me something I didn't know! I didn't know I didn't know you!" Kim screams, as the band pounds behind him, still at the same midtempo groove, but hitting so much harder now than they did when the verse began. "How could I know? You never told!" Kim screams, detailing the shocked response of a person on the receiving end of a meltdown that's been a long time coming. The desperation in his voice is an emotion I know well; I've been on the receiving end of the sorts of freakouts he describes in this song several times myself. They're the sorts of freakouts that come when a person with a pathological fear of confrontation bottles up everything they've been feeling that's been the slightest bit off-kilter, until one day they can't take it anymore and everything that's bothered them for the last several months comes pouring out at you at once. Often, an explosion like this amplifies the original problems, which might not have been that big a deal on their own, and might have been easily solved at the time, through a bit of discussion. However, once they've become part of a huge ball of issues that's all coming at you at once, they can be almost impossible to solve. When the music drops back down at the end of the chorus, into the quieter chugs of the verse, it sounds a bit more menacing than it did the first time through. This is a good approximation of how things are in relationships once there have been one or two of these freakouts. There's a permanent tension in the air, and things can't ever settle down again but so much. As the song runs a second time through its sequence of quiet verse, louder prechorus, and intense crescendo on the chorus, it seems like things are heavier, more intense this time. Sure enough, once the chorus finishes a second time, the song doesn't return to the verse. It gets quiet again, but this time, instead of chugging, the guitars make disorganized noise underneath Kim's tense vocals, then suddenly switch right back into the chorus, louder than ever. Finally, after going through the chorus for a longer time than usual, the song dissolves back into the electrical static that it began with, as if whatever relationship the song depicted has finally fallen apart for good.

The next song, "Tom Foolery", makes an oblique but ultimately easily understood statement in its lyrics. Kim Kinakin was one of the few openly gay hardcore musicians in the late 90s--not that there are all that many now--and "Tom Foolery" addresses this, though you might miss it if you aren't looking for it. Kim addresses how rare this is in the chorus: "'I'm not the only one,' my friend said to me. 'I'm not the only one, but sometimes I seem to be.'" Kim isn't happy with this situation, both where he's concerned and for gay men and women in general: "If you want to hear my heart break, you got to listen closely to the words I can't speak." Finally, he declares that he won't be silenced. "I'm telling everyone that I'm playing for the other team, because you know, it hurts to assume and it kills to hold it in." This statement is delivered over a relatively quiet moment in the song, so that any listener would notice it from first listen. I know that I did--in the 10 year span between when I originally dubbed this album from a friend and when I finally bought it, that lyric was the only one on the whole album that I remembered. But then, I was struggling with issues of sexuality back then (not that I'm not now), so maybe I was more attuned to it. Regardless, it's good to hear. It's often tough to feel OK with being out when it's so much easier to hide one's non-heteronormative proclivities. Just hearing it from a band you like, knowing you're not alone, can sometimes help more than it seems like it should.

"Five Letter Words" is probably my favorite song on this album. Once again, it's got that same midtempo groove going on, but its chorus is based around possibly the best riff on the album. The verse isn't bad either, and the pre-chorus has some memorably intense chugging, but the best part is when the pre-chorus reaches its end. There's a brief pause before the chorus, during which Kim begins to sing the first line of the chorus: "You're just sitting on the sidelines." The pause sounds like it should naturally last two beats, and the music should come back in after the first two words, but instead, the band holds back until the beginning of the word "sidelines", adding what's either two or three extra beats to the pause. The way this trips up the listener, disrupts the constant head-nod that this album produces, is just as awesome in its own way as the hypnotic rhythm that the pause disrupts. The second time they switch from the pre-chorus to the chorus, they change it up again. Having prepared you to expect a longer-than-natural pause, this time they do the more natural thing and only pause for two beats. Once again, the hypnotic rhythm is disrupted, thereby making it all the more satisfying when it kicks back in. There's something I love about that--the moment of contrariness in the middle of an entire album seemingly dedicated to an unceasing, monolithic rhythm. It's perfect.

"500wattburner@seven" contains both strong and weak songs, and if a listener isn't in the right mood, I'm sure what seems intense at some times can also seem boring. However, if you're able to enter the headspace necessary to tap into this album's constant midtempo groove, you're really in for a treat. And never mind if it sounds like Quicksand; the truth is that Quicksand never did anything this single-minded. In a way, that's a strength for them. But the fact that Sparkmarker were able to do something this single-minded is in turn a strength of its own.

Sparkmarker - Keep The Quarter
Sparkmarker - Five Letter Words



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