Album Review: Screaming Females, Ugly

Look no further, here’s the album of the year.

Screaming Females is a 3-piece indie rock/post-punk band hailing from New Brunswick, New Jersey. Not for those who are easily intimidated,  they have long been known for their monstrous hooks, unbelievable live performances, and the commanding Siren-like vocal approach of their diminutive frontwoman Marissa Paternoster.

The release of their fifth studio album, Ugly,  is out on Don Giovanni Records.  It was engineered by indie hero Steve Albini (Nirvana, Superchunk, Jawbreaker) and the album benefits immensely from his expertise: it is loud and it shreds. Following up the mildly disappointing Castle Talk, Ugly is a big step forward for the band.

There is a small disclaimer, however. Before putting the headphones on, it should be noted that Marissa’s vocals aren’t for everyone—at least initially. Some have gone so far as to say that she’s unlistenable. Of course, these people are simply misguided. Marissa’s vocals are wholly unique, yes, but that isn’t a bad thing. It may just take a little getting used to.

On Ugly, Marissa proves once again why she’s one of the best guitarists in the underground. She exhibits a unique confidence and dynamism in both her riffing and her solos which keeps the record at a high energy level.  Thankfully, Marissa knows never to descend into the self-obsessed guitar wankery so common of other guitarists. Often unfairly overshadowed by Marissa, bassist King Mike and drummer Jarrett Dougherty are also especially excellent on this album. They compliment Marissa’s guitar work with a high level of finesse and they both get their own little moments to show off their skill.

Thematically, the album relies heavily on self-analysis, doubt, and fear. Lines like, “Heaven forgive me, heaven forgot me now/Hell is within me, hell’s all around me now” are some of the darkest on the album.  As a result, this is the band’s most personal and affecting recording to date.

This album also has the trio taking more musical risks. “It All Means Nothing” the first single, is perhaps the most catchy song in the band’s catalogue. That chorus will stay with you for weeks. “Expire” is the kind of undeniably cool surf-influenced song that would feel right at home on the soundtrack of a Tarantino flick. On “5 High” Marissa’s varied style really shines through in repeated line deliveries and her snotty vocals. “Tell Me No” is played at such a frantic pace that it feels like the band is at risk of losing control. At a eight minutes, “Doom 84” exhibits the band flexing their musical muscle as tempo changes, mixed structure, start-stop rhythms, and blistering solos litter the song.

It is not until the final track, “It’s Nice,” that the attack of Screaming Females lets up. The band reels it in for a beautiful acoustic number. The song is quieter than anything else on the record as Marissa’s vocal passion comes through more powerfully than on any other song.

Fans will be happy to know that Marissa’s patented screams, largely absent from their last album, make a small but triumphant return in songs like “Tell Me No” and “5 High.” They really give the songs an added layer of depth.

Over the last few years the band has toured relentlessly, resulting in a steady growth in popularity, and finally culminating with the release of Ugly. Spin, the AV Club, the L.A. Times and a number of other media outlets across the country have given the album nearly unanimous praise. Screaming Females are only going to get bigger.

Ugly is an album that delivers a diverse, rocking array of songs, top-notch musicianship, penetrating lyrics, and a full, uncompromising sound. It’s hard not to shower praise upon it. Give Ugly a whirl; you’d be doing yourself a disservice not to.

Head on over to Spin.com to stream the entire album.