It seemed fitting to scope out Church Camp on a recent Sunday at Tree Bar, it being the Lord’s Day and all. But even though there was no preaching — the show took place in a lightly crowded bar and not in a chapel, after all — there were definitely moments that aspired to spiritual transcendence.
The songs posted to the band’s official website (churchcampband.com) are more lyric-driven, with complex, math-rock-leaning guitar passages that weave around bassist/singer Esther Henry’s vocals rather than envelope them. Live it was often the opposite, and most of the lyrics were indistinguishable amid the onslaught of guitars, which were every bit as relentless as the rain that fell steadily outside the venue. On one new song, which drummer Ryan Harper said the band was playing in concert for only the second time, dual guitarists Nicky Henry and Dave Ramsey flashed their competing styles. Ramsey swung his guitar like a battle axe, and his riffs dropped as swiftly and severely as guillotine blades; Henry, in contrast, had a tendency to hunch over his instrument and pluck out harmonic notes, his fingers creeping over the strings as adeptly as a tarantula on the hunt.
There was a certain majesty to songs like “Reflections,” which Ramsey overlaid with graceful keyboard notes, and “You’re So Fair,” another new song that adopted that classic soft-loud-soft song dynamic and stretched it out to stirring affect. At times, though, there was a Frankenstein’s monster feel to the material. “Tears, Sweat, Blood,” for one, felt more like a collection of riffs in search of a center than a coherent musical idea.
Regardless, I credit the band for pushing its music in uncomfortable directions, and for the rare moment that fell flat (the space-junk dissonance introducing “Tears…”) there were several that hit the mark. This was particularly true of “Time to Go,” a ferocious gut-punch of a tune built around the one-two uppercut of Henry’s shout-it-out vocals (I couldn’t understand a word she said, but good god did she let it rip here) and the interplay between the twin guitarists, who laid down a series of riffs as gnarled and knotted as the bark on the ancient tree stump perched just feet away.