Sparta isn't often called a pretty-sounding band, but anyone paying attention during its set Monday night at the 9:30 club would have found genuine moments of beauty: the swirling middle section of "La Cerca," the chiming intro to "Light Burns Clear," even a sweet, acoustic version of "Collapse." But it was never long before the El Paso band's blustery guitars bloomed again and the quartet was digging in behind Jim Ward's baying voice, pushing and pulling the kind of loud, minor-key rock that they dispensed in thick, steaming slabs.

Guitarist/singer Ward, drummer Tony Hajjar and guitarist Paul Hinojos, who formed Sparta with bassist Matt Miller when their former outfit At the Drive-In ceased operations, have been gradually moving toward a polished hard-rock sound over the past two years. And though "Porcelain," their second full-length disc, certainly won't be mistaken for U2 anytime soon, the rusty edges of their earlier songs have been smoothed.

Sparta's hour-long set was nothing if not workmanlike, a reflection of the recent major-league road time it has done with bands like Incubus and Pearl Jam. Ward songs like "Breaking the Broken" turned from ATDI's punk caterwaul to near alt-metal, but that hardly made their surging hooks any less effective. And if the searing choruses of "While Oceana Sleeps" continue to be the kind of thing Sparta squeezes out as it heads toward the mainstream, well, bring on the cover of Rolling Stone.

-- Patrick Foster