It’s the cheapest thing in the world to focus on the fact that Marissa Paternoster is a small human being with an enormous voice, even though that fact still spins my head a little bit. Paternoster has been making music with her band Screaming Females for over a decade, and we should all be good and used to it by now. And it’s not giving her enough credit, either. Because it’s not just that Paternoster’s voice is big. It’s the way she projects a towering strength. Paternoster sounds vast, colossal, eternal. She sounds like wrought iron and California redwoods. She sounds like Easter Island sculptures. She sounds like Braun Strowman. She sounds like an eternal, elemental force. And one of the great thrills in every new Screaming Females record is in hearing how she captures and harnesses that strength, in seeing where she channels it.
For years, Screaming Females were a punk band, one of the best we had. They probably reached the truest, most powerful iteration of that version of the band with their Steve Albini-produced 2012 album Ugly. Then, with 2015’s Rose Mountain, they went off in another direction. On that album, they teamed up with the veteran metal producer Matt Bayles and made something grand and monumental. They slowed down their attack and wrote big riffs and bigger choruses. Their sound became a feral, mutated take on classic rock. And that’s more or less where it is on All At Once, the band’s new album. They’ve recorded with Bayles once again, and they’ve put together a long and dynamic record, one where the songs have room to breathe but the intensity never quite lets up.
In bassist King Mike and drummer Jarrett Dougherty, Paternoster has one of the finest rhythm sections in all of indie rock. The band members write songs together, talking about how democratic their process is, and it would be a mistake to slight the two men in the band. On All At Once, the former Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty joins in on one song, and you can’t really tell the difference, which is about the nicest compliment I could possibly pay Dougherty. Still, this is a band that would be entirely justified if it changed its name to the Marissa Paternoster Experience. Paternoster is the hero here. Her voice is a fiery wail, a howl powerful enough to tingle your bone marrow. She bites off the ends of her syllables with a completely intuitive sense of theater. And as a guitarist, she’s an absolute beast of a shredder. On All At Once, she doesn’t show off in the same way that she’s done on past albums, though it’s always clear that she can fucking play. Instead, her solos are more melodically focused, and they slide into the songs more logically. She doesn’t play anything like Slash, but her solos fit organically into the songs the same way his once did.
The band’s lyrics tend toward rock-poetry opacity, and I don’t necessarily know what Paternoster is singing about most of the time, but her words, like her delivery, are evocative: “All the men before me / Swollen with seed / Scraped the earth nude and clean.” And she doesn’t just sell those lyrics. She makes them sound like something you might find carved on the side of a pyramid. Even outside the context of DIY punk, Screaming Females bring catharsis with their grandeur. “The sun destroys me,” Paternoster sings on “Agnes Martin,” turning those words into a primal howl. And as the world continues to descend into a lawless feeding frenzy, with the rich preying on the rest of us, it’ll always be powerful to hear a human being, whatever her size, planting her feet and letting loose with something like that.
In a recent Stereogum interview, Screaming Females talked a bit about their feelings of uncertainty after the 2016 election, about whether a record like the one they were working on would even make sense in that context. “In some part of our minds we were like, ‘Who cares about a fucking rock ‘n’ roll record?'” Dougherty admits. If this were any other band, he might’ve been right to worry. But the magic of Screaming Females is that they always sound like a spark in the darkness.
All At Once is out 2/23 on Don Giovanni.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Turnstile’s expansive melodic hardcore cruncher Time & Space.
• Caroline Rose’s insightful, melodically explosive LONER.
• S. Carey’s spaciously pretty Hundred Acres.
• Black Milk’s thoughtful, live-instrumentation-heavy rap album Fever.
• Vundabar’s catchily death-obsessed Smell Smoke.
• Kal Marks’ DIY thrasher Universal Care.
• Reggie And The Full Effect’s synth-punk comeback 41.
• Young Scooter’s moody trap opus Trippple Cross.
• Lionlimb’s tricky, insular Tape Recorder.
• Renata Zeiguer’s woozy debut Old Ghost.
• Olden Yolk’s self-titled psych-pop debut.
• Six Organs Of Admittance’s theory-driven Hexadic III.
• El Perro Del Mar’s We Are History EP.
• Corey Flood’s Wish You Hadn’t EP.