Eight albums in, and New Brunswick’s Screaming Females are still doing their own damned thing. Going down their Desired Pathway, if you will. Lame jokes aside, it’s a journey the listener should float along with—like a white water raft through familiar indie-rock tropes that surprises you full in the face with rushes of foam.
There’s a joy in hearing tried-and-true three piece thrashing veering off course, a refreshingly idiosyncratic style that’s defined almost twenty years of the group. Any punk musician can slam a few chords and scream, but Marissa Paternoster and Mike Abbate seem to love cheeky intricacy. It’s the sorta business Steve Albini pines for—a band that’s not easy to categorise or completely replicate after inventing their designs from a near-tribal four-instrument blueprint.
Of course, Albini has produced for them, while this latest effort however sees deck-duties from Matt Bayles, their collaborator since Rose Mountain. Given the more blooming warmth that radiates through here, those carefully captured crisp jangly guitars and heady atmospheres that made up Bayles’ past metal projects—including the similarly titled and massively underrated Blood Mountain from Mastodon—flood colour into Screaming Females’ existing brand of garage rock.
Brass Bell’s fuzzy astral synth buildup pumps the blood before it’s all cut through by the trio’s precise brand of indie-inspired noise. “I have flown us to the moon!” warbles Marissa Paternoster, while a repeated chord-based riff harkening back to the pinky-finger variations of No One Knows struts its stuff. Even microtonal lead licks ring out over punchy sludge drums. “It’s too loud! It’s too loud!” gets exclaimed, like something an easy listening fan would say at the screaming mini-solos which pierce out over their discography, and the occasional trips into Bayles’ alternative metal pastures.
And that’s exactly the intention for Screaming Females, with the Stratocaster-on-fire no doubt catching the ear of riot grrrl royalty Kathleen Hanna who proclaims Paternoster as “one of the best guitar players alive.” No stranger to shredding, Let Me Into Your Heart’s riffs infer as much heart-bleeding passion as its more literal chorus, where the singer’s textured vocal range brings an emotional depth and heft to rollicking proceedings. The band still manages to convey that feeling of a young, talented band suddenly falling onto the festival circuit before blowing everyone’s arses off. Paternoster’s bizarro licks are so obviously Paternoster, managing to whiplash like a pig doing zoomies with all the rhythmic catchiness of traditional chord changes. Desert Train mimics this effect, and closer Titan, where vibrato bends add their own spicy flavour, cartoonish and braggadocious.
Its early-mid section holds an almost mythical air, a far cry from the backlot rock the group frequently exhibits. Let You Go slows the river into a meander with some ghoulish “woo!”s in the background. There’s certainly a gothic iciness in the air, down to the vocal delivery, in parts a hymnal chant as frosty and macabre as a Halloween night church spire. Metallic sounding strings ping across the folkloric Beyond The Void, transforming the somberness into a whimsical shanty that utilises vocal layers for a campfire sing along.
Mourning Dove could be mistaken for a power-pop relic of noughties past—a punky soundtrack for a teenage movie dating montage—yet turns its simplistic charm inside out for a brief moment through tasteful lead licks and vocal harmonies. Those snapshots of unfamiliar tricks that divide Paternoster’s style from chart-grabbing hitters abound: Ornament’s well-groomed songwriting endearingly plays up to fisheye lens music videos and mall shopping, but a hair metal solo run opens proceedings, while So Low’s person-with-guitar feels like a private viewing into an individual writing process captured enchantingly by Bayles’ production. King Mike’s bass does more than go walkabout on It’s All Said And Done, fingertips disappearing off the neck-edge only to pick up right where they left off, not a step out of place. Jarrett Dougherty’s chunky thuds maintain the rhythmic undercurrent to let the fronting duo run amok.
Some things can just rock your socks, but Screaming Females would rather force you to change them. You may find a style that suits you differently every Friday, able to slip back into the comforting snug you do enjoy. The band juggle that tightness and familiarity with the off-course tidbits of genuinely baffling playing: it’s those sweet spots that have satisfied indie-rock followers throughout the ages, and if there’s ever a return to the bombastic, bewildering joy of guitar music, these three should be considered chieftains for the movement.
For fans of: Pixies, Sleater-Kinney, Weezer
‘Desire Pathway’ by Screaming Females is released on 17th February on Don Giovanni Records.
Words by Elliot Burr