By the time a band has been around for ten or more years, they tend to be pretty confident in their sound. As they progress, they essentially have two options: stick with what they know works, or try something new. Local doom pop/post-punk rockers Action Camp, who have existed as the duo of Maura Jacob and Bengt Alexsander since 2006, have chosen the latter. Their upcoming self-titled EP, set to drop on Friday, August 4th, adds a new member to the mix: drummer Joe Tarowsky, also of The Park Plan. They’ll be marking the occasion with a release show the same night at Club Cafe, featuring openers Silence and Hearken.
This signals a shift of focus from their previous electronic-heavy endeavors to more of a raw rock sound, though samples and synths are still prevalent. The six-song album was a true DIY effort: entirely written, recorded, and mixed by the band themselves. It’s meant as an introduction of sorts to their new direction, with three brand new tracks and three remasters of previously released tunes (“Prayer of Smoke,” “Turn of the Blade,” and “Nameless.”)
In this case, branching out was the right call. Tarowsky contributes a fiery pulse to their inventive, entrancing sound, and the results are impressive. Action Camp is an EP that is equal parts gorgeous and dark, evocative and badass, intricate and passionate. Or, as they themselves put it, “eerily gentle and sweeping and ferocious.” Fans of PJ Harvey, Portishead, Queens of the Stone Age, Nine Inch Nails, and/or fellow local rockers Old Game will find plenty to love on Action Camp.
Moments of in-your-face swagger and menace coexist with those of careful control and restraint, but they’re tied together in an intuitive flow. Jacob’s classically-trained vocals are crucial to this versatility. She expertly handles low growls, impassioned yells, and high keening cries, with power and clarity. It’s beautiful, and pairs captivatingly with the band’s often-intense instrumentals. (The word “doom” is not there by accident.) Alexsander’s baritone guitar proves versatile, laying down powerful, gritty riffs, pointed solos, and unsettling buzz, to create an imposing, immersive atmosphere. The throbbing undercurrent from Jacob’s bass adds even more depth and rhythmic interest, while Tarowsky’s skillful drumbeats provide a charged framework for each track. All this is tied together with evocative electronic elements and sharp lyricism, for a sound that’s completely their own, and completely killer.
We start out full force with “The War at My Side.” It’s energetic and intense. Jacob’s bass subtly drives with the drums during the verses, while an unnerving, recurring guitar riff from Alexsander floats on top, vaguely recalling a haunted house. Considering the fear and pain explored in both the lyrics and Jacob’s delivery of them, this feeling makes a lot of sense: “I know how others see me/a big mistake/the side you take/Deserved, or earned/it’s all burned, and now no one’s safe.” Her voice ascends in pitch and power during the choruses, and is joined by backing vocals from Alexsander and Tarowsky. The frantic layering of all three voices in the song’s outro, combined with fierce instrumentals, is especially cool.
The pace picks up even more in the next track, “The Storm.” The call-and-response vocals of the chorus—“We stand (we stand)/You fall (you fall)”—and dark, grungy guitar lines make for an old-school vibe. Action Camp has released several covers of songs from the 80’s, so this is fitting. A trend emerges here that recurs throughout the album: the band pausing to silence or near-silence, then coming back on the attack, and repeating this pattern. These moments of quiet grab your attention, and make the walls of sound that follow that much more impactful. The guitar solo that follows this song’s on-off move is especially cool.
“Prayer of Smoke” slows things down, but is deliberate and menacing as hell. I mean that almost literally. Jacob’s low but insistent voice sings lyrics such as these during the verses: “You hear the scream, of metal that’s as good as your name/The spinning wheels, you swear that they all stay the same/And in the heat, that most would jump just to escape/You stay to see, the devil, without his shame.” This is the first of the remastered older tracks, originally appearing on the band’s 2014 release “PA.” The electronic emphasis of the first edition (particularly in its extended introduction) was traded for a warmer tone throughout, more intricate live drums, and a more obviously raw rock sound. The slow, in-your-face guitar riff contrasts nicely to the faster, rolling percussion in the verses, creating an incredible energy. But again, the song travels well, exploring quieter, thoughtful moments between powerful explosions. Still, its chanting vocals and kick-drum emphasis in the chorus are nothing short of badass.
“Turn of the Blade” is another reworked track from “PA.” The differences are subtler here, coming through most in the increased intensity and complexity of the song’s percussion. It’s another slowly simmering track, with a rhythmic, swaggering guitar line from Alexsander that intoxicates. I haven’t specifically mentioned Jacob’s vocal prowess in a while, so let me do that now—her range, tone, and emotive power are phenomenal. On this track alone, she handles a low murmur, an anguished middle range, and gritty, high shouts of “I am afraid” by song’s end. Her technique might be classically trained, but her passion is clearly intrinsic. If there were a perfect song to be played by a Gothic queen on top of her castle at night, while a thunderstorm raged in the background, this would be it.
“Nameless,” the final remastered song of the EP, shakes things up a bit, leaning towards the atmospheric. It’s immersive and relentless, but in a gentler way than its predecessors. Alexsander’s distorted guitar takes center stage instrumentally, with occasional thrums of bass and, surprisingly, bells as the most obvious percussive sound. The synth-laden underbeat is interspersed with ethereal ooh’s and distant, pretty, effect-heavy vocals. Considering the song title, it’s fitting that we can’t entirely make out the words (with the exception of a high, extended repetition of “nameless” towards the end.) It can be risky to make such a sharp turn on such a short release. But in this case, it pays off.
Nowhere is Action Camp’s penchant for the dichotomy between loud and quiet moments clearer than in the EP’s closer, “Shakin’ All Over.” Its entire first half is sparse: a single emotive guitar line, Jacob singing either along with it or by herself, and vocal harmonies appearing only during the title phrase. This bareness reflects the vulnerability articulated in the lyrics. The speaker describes how the person she’s addressing affects her physically: “When you move in right up close to me/That’s when I get the chills all over me/Quivers down my backbone/I got the shakes in my thigh bone/Shivers in my knee bone/Shakin’ all over.” The use of a whammy bar on the end of the guitar lines is another musical mirror of the uncertain, dizzying effects this person has on her, evoking haze and confusion. But almost exactly halfway through, the band comes back in full force, indicating an acceptance of these intense feelings. Jacob’s voice rises in power, matching the instruments. The cymbals roll, and a few brief seconds of electronic, atmospheric weirdness play out, to bring the EP to a close.
From production to songwriting, from emotional charge to technical skill, Action Camp delivers in fierce, cool, unexpected ways. This EP, and the addition of Tarowsky, are promising signs of things to come.
The EP will be available for streaming/download on Action Camp’s Bandcamp page, as well as other electronic music platforms, on Friday, August 4th. The release show is happening that same night at Club Café, with special guests Hearken and Silence opening up. Doors open late, at 10 PM, with the music starting at 10:30. Tickets are $8, and can be purchased here in advance, or at the door. This show is 21+. Keep up with Action Camp on Facebook here.