Screaming Females’ eighth studio album starts with a sound that you don’t hear too often on Screamales records: a synth. That keyboard, played by Jarrett Dougherty, starts as a simple, bloopy, hypnotic figure. After a couple of repetitions, though, it starts to degrade and fuzz out, like a terrestrial radio signal fading. The sound then warps and atomizes, and just after the 30-second mark, we hear the slight hiss of a crash cymbal. The synth cuts off abruptly, and a monster riff comes crashing into the song like the Kool-Aid Man bursting through the wall. Suddenly, we’re in very familiar territory. Screaming Females, one of the all-time great underground rock power trios, are back on their bullshit. They are bringing the big riffs, and they are not fucking around.
Screaming Females have now been a band for 17 years; babies who were born during the band’s first practice are now old enough to drive. All that time, Screamales never stopped cranking out records. The band has been operating at a tremendously high level for its entire existence. There have been no lineup changes. Bandleader Marissa Paternoster has that rare magic about her. Like circa-2001 Jack White, she can be Robert Plant and Jimmy Page at the same time. (Unlike circa-2001 Jack White, though, Paternoster never sounds like she’s trying to be Robert Plant or Jimmy Page, which might make the effect even more powerful.) The rhythm section behind Paternoster has remained utterly unchanged — drummer Jarrett Dougherty and bassist Mike Abbate, both totally locked-in and responsive.
Screaming Females have evolved from DIY punk wrecking crew to full-on fists-up classic rockers, but that evolution has been so assured and gradual that you might not have noticed. They have kicked so much ass, for so long, that the world may have taken them for granted. It happens. I truthfully don’t know how anyone remains in the DIY music world for entire decades. The economics make my head hurt. Screaming Females have taken steps to keep their overhead low. Marisa Paternoster does their album art, which also helps give them a unified visual aesthetic. Mike Abbate prints their T-shirts. Still, bands on Screamales’ level usually either blow up or break up at some point. Screaming Females have simply continued to kick ass in relatively small rooms for years.
But it’s been a minute since we’ve heard from them. Screaming Females released All At Once, their last album, in 2018. That’s five years, much longer than any past break between Screaming Females albums. In 2021, Marissa Paternoster released a solo album called Peace Meter. It was cool, but it wasn’t the same. So when the synth-intro on “Brass Bell” corrodes into nothing and the big, mean Paternoster riff comes in, it feels incredible. It feels like, “Wow, holy shit, I’ve missed this.” Screaming Females have very, very little in common with Turnstile besides DIY-punk upbringings, but their “Brass Bell” synth intro/riff combo reminds me of how Turnstile kicked off Glow On with “Mystery.”
Screaming Females wrote the songs from their new album Desire Pathway in 2019, but the pandemic got in the way of recording sessions. The album’s lyrics address a messy breakup, and the band considered throwing those lyrics out and rewriting the whole album during COVID. They were worried that changing circumstances would render the songs irrelevant. (When they made All At Once, they worried the same thing about Donald Trump’s presidency.) Paternoster tells SPIN, “We were still writing remotely, and I was like, ‘Should I change the lyrics to a lot of these songs so that it’s more reflective of what we’re probably going to put out in the near future, or should I just keep the older lyrics that have nothing to do with the pandemic?’… I was just like, ‘You know what? I’m just gonna keep them. I’m gonna do my past self that service.'”
This was a good choice. Screaming Females don’t need to be topical. Most of their lyrics are poetically elliptical, anyway. At different points on Desire Pathway, you can definitely understand that Paternoster is talking about a romantic relationship that’s gone bad: “Now I got what I want/ It won’t me feel better/ Built brick by brick in hell.” Most of the time, though, Paternoster’s writing takes the form of mythic rock metaphor: “Forget my name/ I’m a freight train in the desert dragging chains.” A lyric like that could refer to a breathless, scared, freaked-out sensation, or it could describe feeling awesome, and Marissa Paternoster doesn’t need to make that decision for you. She just needs to fully believe whatever she’s wailing. On Desire Pathway, she always does.
When they got the all-clear, Screaming Females recorded most of Desire Pathway at Pachyderm Studios in Minnesota. That’s the same place where Nirvana made In Utero and PJ Harvey made Rid Of Me. If you’re an underground rock power trio, it would be hard to imagine two better north-star records. Steve Albini, a past Screaming Females collaborator, recorded both In Utero and Rid Of Me, but he didn’t have anything to do with Desire Pathway. Instead, Screaming Females recorded that one with Matt Bayles, a rock veteran who likes to form long-term relationships with heavy-ass bands: Botch, Isis, Mastodon. Bayles also produced All At Once and its predecessor, 2015’s Rose Mountain — which means Screaming Females now belong to that lineage of heavy-ass bands.
I don’t know if Screaming Females really needed any help sounding heavy, but if they did, then Matt Bayles gave them that. Desire Pathway is a fairly straightforward record; most of it sounds like the trio playing in a room together. But the few subtle production tricks do help. There’s that synth intro. There’s the way Marissa Paternoster sometimes multi-tracks her vocals, giving herself a choir of backup singers. There’s the hard power-pop snap in “Mourning Dove,” which might be the catchiest song on the record. (That one vaguely reminds me of Alkaline Trio’s From Here To Infirmary, another classic underground rock power-trio album recorded at Pachyderm.) There’s the way that the ballad “So Low” strips away the band, pairing Paternoster’s voice and acoustic guitar with a lone cello. But Desire Pathway mostly works because Screaming Females know exactly what they’re doing.
It’s just a blast to hear these three people playing together. As a guitarist, Marissa Paternoster shreds. Her leads and solos are rarely showy, and her riffs always serve the songs, but her ragged and blistering guitar tone is an attraction unto itself. Paternoster’s bandmates don’t leave her on her own unless the songs call for it. Mike Abbate’s bass doesn’t just anchor the song; it’s often the main vehicle for getting the riff across. Jarrett Dougherty hits his drums hard, but he does it in intuitive ways, building the songs up at the right moments. These people all just understand each other, and they know how to help each other rock. It feels so good to hear them doing what they do again. Don’t take it for granted.
Desire Pathway is out 2/17 on Don Giovanni Records.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Caroline Polacheck’s Desire, I Want To Turn Into You
• @’s Mind Palace Music
• Pile’s All Fiction
• Runnner’s Like Dying Stars, We’re Reaching Out
• Secret Machines’ The Moth, The Lizard, And The Secret Machines
• Pink’s Trustfall
• Avey Tare’s 7s
• Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs’ Land Of Sleeper
• Orbital’s Optical Delusion
• Shonen Knife’s Our Best Place
• Anna B Savage’s in|FLUX
• Inhaler’s Cuts & Bruises
• POSH SWAT’s self-titled album
• Lisel’s Patterns For Auto-Tuned Voices And Delay
• Lowly’s Keep Up The Good Work
• John-Allison Weiss’ The Long Way
• Steady Holiday’s Newfound Oxygen
• New Pagans’ Making Circles Of Our Own
• dEUS’ How To Replace It
• See You Next Tuesday’s Distractions
• koleżanka’s Alone With The Sound The Mind Makes
• Sunroof’s Electronic Music Improvisations Vol. 2
• Free Range’s Practice
• Owl’s Geomancy
• Jordan Davis’ Bluebird Days
• Gabriel da Rosa – É o que a casa oferece ^*
• Edwin Raphael’s Warm Terracotta
• David Lindsay-Abaire & Jeanine Tesori’s Kimberly Akimbo (Original Broadway Cast Recording)
• Marshall Crenshaw – Marshall Crenshaw (40th Anniversary Expanded Edition)
• TV Star’s Hallucinate Me EP
• Goldenboy Countup’s Love Golden 2 EP