Two Releases from Screaming Females (Music Review)

Usually when I review multiple albums by the same artist, they all get pretty similar grades. But I was surprised by how differently I reacted to two releases by Screaming Females. I wouldn’t be surprised if at least part of this difference is unique to me, so your impressions may vary. Still I found their 2011 release to be uninteresting and their 2012 one to be great.

Castle Talk cover

Screaming Females – Castle Talk

The band’s skill is definitely evident on Castle Talk. Marissa Paternoster, the only actual screaming female of the group, has a bold punk snarl with a hint of traditional singing to it. The band displays a wide range that gives the songs too much complexity to be described as punk. The pieces just don’t mesh, though: Paternoster spends the majority of the album projecting her voice in a flat, atonal way, and the music usually sounds hesitant while she is singing. If not for the fact that Paternoster was also lead guitar, I’d come away from this with a story about an indie-prog band trying and failing to find a way to work with a punk singer.

There are good songs here, most notably “I Don’t Mind It”. Otherwise, too many of the memorable parts of this album stick in the mind not because of their quality, but because they’re reminiscent of simple elementary school rhymes (“Laura and Marty went to a party…”) It’s notable that the band has more success when they seem to scale back their ambitions: “A New Kid” contains a simple mess of electronic guitar fuzz, rather than the more intricate music of the other songs, but at least it provides good support for the vocals.

With obvious potential, but rarely good for more than a few lines at a time, Castle Talk is a frustrating album. It was just good enough to convince me that I should also check out their newer album before writing a review. I’m glad I did, because Ugly is where the individual pieces of talent suddenly fit together.

Ugly cover

Screaming Females – Ugly

The major complaints I had about their previous album are gone in this one: The music doesn’t drop out when Paternoster sings, and she uses a much broader vocal range. Though not a classically pretty voice by any means, it rises above the bouncy, lo-fi hard rock to provide a very comfortable dissonance. Non-traditional hooks fill the album, and feel completely natural. If Castle Talk was less than the sum of its parts, Ugly finds the alchemy that makes them something greater.

The lyrics seem personal, but in an obtuse way that discourages interpretation. (Sample: “My fingers swarm the gun as blinding as the sun but I’ve got to point it to the right and fascinate the night that begs to mourn the moon…”)

The highlight of Ugly is “Doom 84”, a seven-and-a-half-minute song that feels like twelve, in a good way. Sludgy, driving rock slowly builds in tension as Paternoster sings with a release that seems to proclaim life’s secrets. That the lyrics actually seem to be about dirty, submissive sex just make the song greater. If she can find such empowering joy in “your piss on my pillow, your filth in my veins”, well then, there is hope for everyone to find what they need. The song’s end is the ultimate release, as the light, saccharine “Help Me” provides an immediate change from the heady darkness.

Screaming Females feel like a long experiment in the ways one can merge guitar with the human voice. Like all experiments, there are going to be successes and failures, but we are fortunate to have all the best results grouped into one album.

Castle Talk: C

Ugly: B+

 
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