Album Review: Screaming Females – Desire Pathway

[Don Giovanni; 2023]

Screaming Females haven’t released a bad album yet. They’ve spent nearly two decades pushing out frothy rock anthems and maintaining a sturdy line-up, with all three core members still intact. That’s a feat very few can achieve, especially for as long as they have. They remain the quintessential indie rock band – consistently great and consistently overlooked.

For album eight, Desire Pathway, the triad led by Marissa Paternoster maintain the speed and ferocity of past outings. The band plays to their strengths with each album, only minutely altering the recipe for excitement-based rock. Desire Pathway‘s opener “Brass Bell” begins with synths, something you wouldn’t expect from the band, but it’s not a complete pivot – it’s just a fun surprise. Paternoster then grasps the bellowing chorus with a strong vocal flex, “I’m living in a brass bell” she yells, “it’s too loud / it’s too loud.” Her howl is not unlike Robert Plant’s, and though she’s employed this method for years, its power has only deepened with maturation.

Elsewhere, Paternoster dabbles in vocal change-ups. On “Desert Train” she warbles in true Zeppelin fashion, and she sounds downright demonic on “It’s All Said and Done” creeping through with lines like “You should not have had expectations / Think of all the violence you bring,” a clear reference to the orange-faced goon we don’t like to talk about anymore.

Most of Desire Pathway was written back in 2019, right after the band wrapped up touring for All at Once, but then, as with everyone, COVID happened and the album was dwelled on, worked through remotely, until finally they recorded. This ageing of the material actually helped the grooves of Pathway settle in more. This also paved the way for a reunion with producer Matt Bayles, whom they worked wonderfully with on 2015’s Rose Mountain 2018’s All at Once. Bayles brings a heaviness to the table that’s pushed to the foreground for the band this time. Metallic riffs always dominate their collaborations, but Desire Pathway goes even harder. With Bayles having previously worked with Isis, Soundgarden, Mastodon, and Pearl Jam, he knows his way around thick arena-sounding rock.

All of this to point out how excellent Desire Pathway sounds. It’s one of the band’s biggest and best sounding records to date. The band doesn’t lack in sound traditionally, but Bayles’ production takes their grandest qualities and runs them through a meat grinder.

The volume of Desire Pathway has a closed-quarters feel, like the band recorded the album in their living room next to each other. There’s organic adrenaline felt in Paternoster’s shredding on “It’s All Said and Done” and Mike Abbate’s bass is felt instead of simply heard on “Mourning Dove”; throughout there’s an energy felt when playing with your friends. The passion they have for their band is what has helped keep the Screaming Females going for so long without any line-up changes.

That’s an important part about music, about having a band. Orchestras rely on every instrument and player feeling supported. Screaming Females aren’t an orchestra, obviously, but all three members support each other on Desire Pathway. Jarrett Dougherty’s drumming on “Ornament” matches Paternoster’s hollering “Now I got what I want / It won’t make me feel better / built brick by brick in hell.”

This is miraculous, because after eight albums and consistent touring behind each, you’d think they’d be sick of each other. But it’s a testament not just to their desire to make blistering rock music, but also their commitment to each other. There’s a wholesomeness to their rock, prevalent on every album, right from the angst and hunger displayed on their 2006 debut Baby Teeth right up to today, where you’ll be attracted to their music’s simple but engaging feel.

Even when it’s stripped back to just Paternoster and an acoustic guitar for “So Low”, Desire Pathway still maintains that tight-knitted band texture. All three band members are in unison, and while they may not be headlining festivals or selling out arenas, those in the know can tell you that Screaming Females are one of the best rock bands of the 21st century, and their latest is a prime example of what makes them so damn great.