Album Review: Screaming Females – Ugly

[Don Giovanni Records; 2012]

I can never really tell if the New Brunswick music scene — which has, with impressive consistency, churned out fantastic bands for the better part of the past 25 years — is appropriately recognized or criminally overlooked. With very few to simply no legitimate venues (the last legal one, The Court Tavern, closed a few months ago), the college town/city’s basements have been a breeding ground for all kinds of hardcore, pop-punk, emo, and any/everything that could possibly be categorized somewhere in between. There is any number of reasons for why New Brunswick has never really had a spotlight moment like Seattle or Omaha: You could chalk it up to proximity to New York, multiple “sounds of New Brunswick,” the insularity that’s necessarily a product of police crackdowns on basement concerts forcing show flyers to note venue locations with an enigmatic, “ask a punk,” or perhaps it was just a lack of a defining local label. There was Eyeball, which put out early projects from Thursday and My Chemical Romance, but that was more or less lumped in with early-00s post-hardcore and emo, and both bands had moved to other labels before they really took off. Luckily, since 2003, Don Giovanni has taken up the task of signing bands almost exclusively from New Brunswick, with a few from NYC as well. Over the past few years, the label’s flagship group has become Screaming Females, whose new record Ugly takes New Brunswick’s rock/punk/hardcore/metal mish-mash sound to ridiculous places — it will crush your skull, shred your brain into goop, and stand there, arms crossed patiently, while you collect yourself for another round.

With four records already under their belt, it’s easy enough to track the trio’s growth up since 2006’s self-released Baby Teeth. The songwriting’s gotten tighter, the arrangements are more intricate, and the musicianship, especially, is more confident and technically stunning. Screaming Females haven’t really changed their overall sound or style at all — it’s guitar rock, plain and simple — they’ve just gotten umpteen times better at it, and getting good ol’ Steve Albini to produce certainly did not hurt. The heavy-on-the-low-end setup at Electrical Audio gives Ugly its unflappable crux — Jarrett Dougherty’s drums hit with commanding thuds, and King Mike’s bass can certainly rumble your gut, but even at its punchiest it glides with an ease necessary to act as the foil for Marissa Paternoster’s unhinged guitar. And holy crap the guitar playing on this album! Paternoster has grown into one of the best guitarists in rock music today: The riffs and solos she conjures up on tracks like “Expire” and “Leave It All Up To Me” can slice you into tiny bits or pound you into submission, but not without a nimbleness audible in the way she flies up and down the fretboard, seamlessly shifting gears/modes in between, and in the middle of, licks and solos.

All the better that out of that incredible technical skill come some seriously mind-warping and memorable hooks. Ugly certainly has a consistent overall sound to it — like 90s guitar-heavy indie rock, but often way heavier — but the band’s ear for melody keeps the record from ever sounding monotonous. On the haunting “Red Hand,” Paternoster’s guitar screeches like nails against a chalkboard while Mike’s bass creeps atop Dougherty’s jittery hi-hat ticks — oh, and of course Paternoster’s doozy of a voice (which, honestly, I can’t believe hasn’t come up until now; see next paragraph for more) engulfs everything as she sings, “I’ll work for it / I’ll work for it / I’ll work for it,” each time growing more thunderous. Throw in the snake-charmer slink of “Tell Me No” that’s still powerful enough to cut you down, or the death-by-surf-rock twinge of “Extinction,” or sugar-rushed pep and swing of “Help Me,” and you’ve got an album that keeps you constantly on your toes, waiting for the next slight or sudden turn.

So, Paternoster’s voice: it’s an absolute monster. At its core, I’d call it a bellow, this impossibly deep, cavernous thing that can swallow her lyrics, phrases crystal clear one second morph into unintelligible, but no less affecting, howls the next. But the control Paternoster wields over her pipes, keeps it from ever becoming too overwhelming. Instead she manipulates it just slightly, letting it morph into a sneer or croon or warble whenever songs like “Something Ugly” or “Crow’s Nest” call for it. Like her guitar playing, Paternoster’s singing is stunningly malleable, and the listening to how the two play off and around each is one of Ugly’s greatest pleasures.

“Doom 84” is Ugly’s longest, and by far, best track. Clocking in at 7 and a half minutes, it’s a consummate headbanger and flat-out exhibition of everything that makes Screaming Females so fantastic. Dougherty anchors with a drum beat that often grooves as much as it wallops, while King Mike, at one point, delivers this twisted, song-leading bass line that swings up then walks right back down the stairs, and Paternoster gives her best six-string performance yet: the primary riffs refuse to be forgotten and the solo, though indeed somewhat short, lays waste to everything around it. It’s one of those tracks that’s instantly re-playable, one that you’ll want to listen to again and again till you can flutter your fingers in perfect unison to every single note. More than anything, “Doom 84” and Ugly as a whole reveal a band that relishes infinite possibilities the rock formula provides; and this record’s awesomeness lies in Screaming Females’ ability to fill in the blanks completely. Ugly is so rich, so dense, so full that you forget there’s just three of them.