Screaming Females - All at Once (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

Screaming Females

All at Once (2018)

Don Giovanni

You see, Screaming Females’ last album, 2015’s Rose Mountain, was an absolute jam- 10 tracks of tightly focused riff-punk. That album smashed and thrashed and was even bent around a pretty-clever central theme. So, what do you do after you’ve reached the core of what you’ve been refining for 10 years? There’s only one thing you can do- something completely different.

Now, let’s not overstate it. This still is a Screaming Females record. Vocalist/guitarist Marissa Paternoster sings with an impossibly soulful voice and busts out Iommi/Sage worthy guitar lines. Bassist King Mike still walks the fine line between Geddy Lee dexterity and thundergod slamming. To borrow a line from a famous rugby joke, drummer Jarrett Doughtery is a gentleman that drums like a barbarian. The unit is all in effect here.

But, that being said, where previous releases have gotten tighter and tighter, more and more aerodynamic, All at Once- their first album in three years and longest gap between long-players ever- feels like a band shooting out from that structure and shooting towards the sky. If anything, All at Once sounds HUGE. Opening track, “Glass House” drops the listener to the ground with massive loud, boldly simple lines only to then traipse across the speakers with a gentle cooing. Paternoster’s voice is as bold and as rich as it has ever been (one wonders why she isn’t mentioned in top singers list? Who sings with the power and gusto of this young lady in the Wednesday Adams dress?) Meanwhile, Mike and Doughtery have evolved into a unique block. Some bands, and most of the best punk ones, morph into pure bashers, making as much noise as they can through a cloud of distortion. Other bands, like most of the best post-punk ones, hone in on texture and feeling and use that to convey a sort of strength. Mike and Doughtery have pulled the difficult feat of smashing it up with power, while retaining a sort of craftsman’s touch.

All of that is to say, more than ever before, the band is willing to embrace space and texture- and that’s revealing a whole new dimension for them. As Paternoster strings her voice against a fading backdrop on “Glass House,” a sort of Bauhausian terror rolls up the side of the song. “Dirt” opens with a few clinking guitar lines before King Mike runs up his bass line with no more than four effective notes. There’s an artful use of simplicity here to the extent that these songs don’t sound simple at all- they are massive, moving, and multifaceted- but never are they bland. Rather, instead of punching note after note down our ears, Screaming Females make every pluck, every single thwap, single second, do something to advance the album. When every single element counts, the whole thing feels that much more important.

The band also seems to be having a bit of fun contrasting new styles here. “Bird in Space” might cause me to envision Steve Miller band album covers, but its drifting gentleness could easily slip into a Stevie Nicks’ greatest hits LP and also side B of what might be the best ballady-rock album ever, Sticky Fingers. But, just as that song makes its delicate exit, “Fantasy Exit” comes rushing in with a purposefully abrasive riff-jumble that sounds like computer losing its mind. No doubt, not only is this the band’s most varied album, it’s also their most fun.

What might be most interesting about the album is that it definitely causes you to have emotions- “Deeply” climbs up from a pit of melancholy and before starting a sort of relieved conclusion. The driving melody of “Step Outside” feels like the victory coda to a really good video game. Yet, Paternoster is rarely direct with her lyrics. “Glass House” finds Paternoster “Carving her name into the ceiling” and accusing someone or something of “always controlling” her. As she paints these abstract, Dali-esque images- madness being crushed under people’s heels, mysterious houses arising from nowhere- it’s not always directly apparent what she’s getting at. Yet, despite these twisting images, somehow one feels a connection. Is it just that the band knows how to pluck at the heart strings by plucking certain chords and operate at a Pavlovian level? Is it that Paternoster has tapped a deeper level of the psyche and can speak to the heart and completely bypass the brain? Is it that the band has private intension behind their lyrics, but leave just enough pieces around to be assembled by the listener? The fact is, it’s a combination of all three and the band, while they’ve always done this, are at their apex.

Listen to “Black Moon.” It sounds like Judas Priest riding the back of a dragon through a Pat Benatar video while Tori Amos takes the reigns- and you feel that rush. It’s fun and profound and moves you even though you don’t know and if there’s a more fittingly names album I haven’t heard it because all four sides of the record ignite your brain and soul and you’re not even sure why but at least your sure that there’s something alive in there even if it’s a puzzle that you may never figure out but it’s damn well worth trying.