It has been a long time since 200 Million Years played a show. The band's been busy cutting a new EP and folding a hundred copies into little pyramids. Those were in the back of the Meadowlark, some hanging from a little tree. It had a very freshly-fallen-snow sort of feel, which is appropriate.
The guys have been making other music, too: Drummer Carl Sorensen, who is both precise and very flail-y, has been putting in time across the Denver bandscape, including as a Blinding Flash of Light in John Common's band; Ellison Park, who does a little bit of everything in 200 Million Years, has his own singer/songwriter thing going; and frontman Zale Hassler has been busy himself, recording backup vocals for Nathaniel Rateliff & The Wheel.
So they have friends. One of their friends is Andy Hamilton of Houses, who mastered the EP. More telling is that he wrote an entirely new batch of tunes to play with his wife, Kinsey, expressly for this show, which happened to also be his birthday. They played as Spouses, with maybe half of Houses as back up. Andy didn't think the Houses songs would be an appropriate compliment to 200 Million Years, so he wrote a set that would. The current plan is to not play these songs again.
The Spouses set was, not surprisingly, a flattened out, dreamier version of Houses. Or: Houses the way 200 Million Years might have done it. A generous act of support for the headliners and an interesting lesson in Andy Hamilton's ability to write lots of songs, but we'll be happy to see Houses back. Hopefully soon. And hopefully with a Winter EP in tow.
Nothing like a tour in Japan to remind you that playing music is supposed to be fun. The Sunset Curse went to the island where punk is still very much alive and kicking last year and the group is a reckless and awesome live act today. Holy crap. The act started the set wearing ski masks. One more thing to strip away, I guess -- shirts and pants are another, and the trio ended markedly more naked than they began.
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The Sunset Curse's latest album, Artifical Heart, is a serious step forward, seeing the band go from angst and dance beats to a clear vision of urgent synth-pop. The keys cut like a knife on the album, but you don't get the throbbing lower end until you see it live. You also don't get just how aggressive the music is until you are standing in a venue as singer Christopher Nelson points at a random assortment of crowd members saying "fuck you. And you."
And then he comes crashing forward as the set reaches its climax, leaning into the crowd, climbing tables (as you can see), and generally getting everyone psyched. The band packed a smoke machine and its own lights and the whole room was hazy and dry and delirious.
The Sunset Curse is a tough act to follow, no doubt about it, but then again Achille Lauro is just stupid good. The Meadowlark was a bumpin'-uglies-with-strangers sort of packed and these guys have just the jams for this or any other occasion.
Not that you would know it just by watching them. Cool to the point of flippant, the guys don't sound like they mean it when they call a song the T-Bird of songs. But they probably do. They are confident in the music they're playing, and for very good reason. They've reached a balance now, added some space to their music and achieved the best kind of groove.
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Achille Lauro's new album comes out in about a month. Two of the songs are available right now on its myspace page. I could tell you how good they are all day long. Or you could just go and listen. Start with "No Breaks."
200 Million Years is a very good band. On record. But the group's sort of lengthy, spaced out rock with a couple rough edges and a whole bunch of gazing, does not make for the most engaging live show. Not that these guys aren't good performers. All exceptionally skilled musicians, they did as much rocking as the songs would allow.
Zale Hassler knows the score: He ended the show with a sort of half-heard apology about their set. "This is what we do," he said with a grin and a shrug. And again, they do it very well. The EP is a beautiful thing that can transport you to a better place. Live, however, they just didn't get there.
CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK Personal Bias: I knew how good Achille Lauro and Spouses would be. I was decidedly not ready for The Sunset Curse. Random Detail: Denver musician sightings included Lucas Johannes of Action Packed Thrill Ride and Laura Goldhammer. By the Way: The sound system at the Meadowlark is no friend to vocalists. Just can't carry singers over the drum set.