With their DIY roots and a hard-gigging work ethic, New Jersey’s Screaming Females come across as punks, but their music has always been a purer strain of classic, airbrushed-van-dwelling hard rock. The friction in their sound comes from sussing out the intended scale: It’s always been unclear whether they’ve been attempting arena fare and falling short, or if they’re consciously trying to make hard-riffing guitar rock into something more relatable and human-sized. They’ve got a scrappy, striving quality that makes them seem forever like a band that might suddenly rise to some higher level. But at this point, they’ve been a working band for a decade and put out six full-length records; to a large degree, they are what they are.
Their rhythm section, drummer Jarrett Dougherty and bassist King Mike, are as sly and able as ever. If you’re a fan, though, you’re almost certainly here for the guitar heroics of band-leader Marissa Paternoster. Her solos ping from ear bud to ear bud like a super-ball. There’s a tangibility to them; you can almost see her fingers in your head as you listen. And listening to her play guitar is one of the great vicarious thrills in rock right now, explicitly because she doesn’t aspire to an effortless remove. The apparent sweat only enhances the inherent grace.
Their latest release, Rose Mountain , is distinct from the band’s previous record, Ugly, in a couple ways. For one, it’s almost 20 minutes shorter. There’s no single track anywhere near as epic as their previous career best, “Doom 84.” The payoffs come quicker this time, as on the curt and catchy album-opener, “Empty Head,”and longing for a higher gear feels almost greedy. The individual tracks are narrower in scope, but the record does flow together nicely as parceled out in easily digestible bite-size bits.
A less superficial development is the band’s newfound ability to sound genuinely sweet. Paternoster’s voice has a theatrical quiver in it, and you can still hear the trill lurking there behind a faux-British archness that might lead her to casually drop in a word like “cherubim.” In these songs she never quite takes it all the way over the top. Instead, the record finds her asserting subtle control, often double-tracking herself into honeyed harmonies. She emotes with soul on quiet ballads and kicks up to a rich, powerful tone that lets her be heard when distortion pedal crunch returns. She could shred dexterously from the band’s very start, but this is as assured and versatile as she’s ever sounded behind the mic.
These songs, the band’s first that could be described as sedate, were inspired by a bad bout of mono that forced Paternoster to cancel a full leg of tour dates in 2012. It would be understandable if Rose Mountain’s patches of quietude are her way of articulating the vulnerability that inevitably comes when health issues threaten one’s livelihood. But the Screaming Females are at their very best when their singer seems at least a little bit feral. That wild quality is now in shorter supply.
Moving a few steps past hard rock onto the brink of heavy metal, we have Miami band Torche. The biodiversity of metal’s many sub-species is slightly demystified by the uncanny accuracy of its many genre tags. No time is lost wondering why they call this stuff “doom” or “sludge.” Using vocals to convey aggression and extremity is a common move for a sludge band, an easy way to add emotional catharsis on top of what sounds physically grueling. Torche singer Steve Brooks has stood out from his peers by contrasting his band’s muck with blasts of near-cheerful psych-pop. They could never be called delicate, but the balance seek, and often achieve, certainly is. The formula was so successful that they seemed to feel obligated to move past it. 2012’s Harmonicraft felt overly structured and even a little safe. Cleaning up their sound made them seem cheesier than intended. (They’ve got two too many angry bald guys for the scent of hairspray to suit them.) Their fourth album, Restarter, returns to greater abrasion. It’s an important course correction.
In comparison to Harmonicraft’s slickness, Restarter’s production sounds, to a reassuring degree, immediately filthy and corroded. The very first song, “Annihilation Affair,” follows vicious pummeling with an outro consisting of nothing but nefarious drumming and grinding noise. A further streamlining is not what’s desired. The band lays down a bed of scorched earth, erects some upward-facing serrated iron upwards, and then floats Brooks’ singing higher still, like low fluffy clouds gathering around a skyscraper’s summit. Even a song that flirts with indie-pop as directly as the brief and bouyant album highlight “Blasted” is dropping subatomic bombs on the regular. Brooks’ vocals continue to provide an easy entry point, but don’t soften the record’s dense, ceaseless churn. Its songs contain very little negative space, squealing with amp feedback in the odd moments when they’re not pounding their riffs paper-flat.
The album-closing title-track is one of the better rock songs of the year so far. Much longer than the rest of Restarter, it stretches out for eight and a half minutes, with repetitions of hypnotic intensity. Check in to it at the 2- , 4-, or 7-minute mark, and there it’ll be, still on the cusp of rushing forward. Its roar modifies only slightly as it goes—at one point, the top guitar layer resembles an electric power sander, later it’s more like an actual sandstorm. When drummer Rick Smith’s tireless beat finally drops out, those subtle screeches keep floating for another minute and a half like Wile E. Coyote run off the cliff but not yet falling, if only because he expected there a bit more solid ground.