Fresh from the release of All At Once, their seventh, and arguably best LP yet, the perennially on-tour, Brunswick, NJ band, Screaming Females, crash-landed into Hackney on an unassuming Wednesday night, leaving devastation and grinning visages in their wake.

Armed with nothing more than the core setup of Jarrett Dougherty on drums, King Mike on bass, and bona fide DIY rock divinity, Marissa Paternoster on guitar, Screaming Females unleash a sound capable of levelling buildings and melting the faces of onlookers at fifty paces. They're a band that disarm one's critical faculties, because they're just so much goddamn fun. As an acquaintance noted during the post-gig debrief outside the venue, "How are you going to review it? You were dancing the whole time!"

Call me unprofessional, if you must, but the notion of standing stoically still, unmoved, observing and taking notes whilst Paternoster, screams specks of lung into her microphone, unleashes monstrous riffs and wrings out impossibly intricate solos with the same apparent, instinctual ease that us mere mortals use to, like, breathe, strikes me as patently absurd, let alone an exercise in futile resistance. A Screaming Females gig is a physical experience, first and foremost. The body moves to the music, and by time your brain has caught up, you realise you're smiling like a blissed-out goon, and (if you're foolish enough to wear more than one thin layer) sweating like a pig in a Turkish sauna.

Whilst Paternoster inevitably steals the show, that immediate physicality is, mostly, down to the rhythm section of Dougherty and King Mike. Dougherty might look like an accountant (apt given his dual role as the band's manager), but he can lock into a rhythm like a motherfucker, and clatter and smash when it's called for, endearingly gritting his teeth with the effort. The looming King Mike, whose stature would make anyone look tiny, let alone the already diminutive Paternoster, could never be accused of over-emoting (no bass face here!), but his sturdy yet nimble bass playing provides the structure and irresistible groove that serves as the platform from which Paternoster can launch herself like a fireworks display composed of squalling guitar and vocal histrionics. And to be fair to him, Mike is definitely having as much fun as the rest of us, singing along to the words cooed, shrieked and screamed by his bandmate into the crowd's astonished faces.

From the chugging alt-metal-meets-Smashing Pumpkins fuzz of opener, 'Black Moon', through to the twitchy funk via Middle Eastern-flavoured riffing of encore closer, 'Starving Dog', the band's set is never less than deliriously entertaining. The only (actually fairly welcome) dip in energy comes with a rendition of 'Bird in Space' from All At Once, but even that classic rock-tinged ballad gets its ante upped to the point where it could almost pass for sludge metal.

screaming females
Photos by Darran Stobbart


Whilst the set naturally leans heaviest on tracks from the band's last two albums, there are outings for a pair of tracks each from Power Move (2009) and Castle Talk (2010), all of which benefit hugely from getting beefed up in the live setting. Before the Albini-produced game-changer, Ugly (2012), the band's DIY production values meant that some 'uumph' was lost in the lo-fi aesthetic, and yet, those earlier albums sound wilder, more free, less predictable than the relative polish of the Matt Bayles productions of Rose Mountain and All at Once. Performed live, all of these songs, new and old, exist in that happy middle ground where immediate, punchy songwriting meets the full, beefy sound of a music venue's PA, meets the off-the-chain unpredictability of live performance. Paternoster's vocal performance, in particular, sees her push her voice to its limits, screaming lines that were delicately sung on record, and generally upping the sense of hell-for-leather mania. Much is made of her guitar shredding, but let's consider her poor vocal chords after all this extensive touring.

When I last bore witness to the landfall of hurricane Screamales on UK soil, it was in support of the Rose Mountain album. In retrospect, that LP feels like a transitionary one: the first album-length move by a band defined by its loose, DIY aesthetic towards a more streamlined approach focused on crafting irresistible hooks and tightly constructed songs. It is clear now that there were growing pains. I remember that show at The Lexington, a slightly smaller venue a few miles away from OSLO, being entertaining, but somewhat controlled, as if the band were tentatively holding back. If memory serves, songs were performed as they were on record. The Screaming Females of today take liberties with their songs. 'Empty Head', a precursor to the airtight, power-pop perfection of 'I'll Make You Sorry', is given an extended outro that bears the influence of the epic two-part 'Chamber for Sleep' suite on the latest LP. 'Adult Army' gets an augmented intro that builds the tension until it's dispelled by the relative playfulness of that song's opening verse.

Little segues add cohesion to a set that moves from the Black Sabbath-esque stop-start riffing of 'Glass House', to the monumental Tom Morello-isms of 'Fall Asleep', to the anthemic punk-pop of 'Wishing Well' or 'Hopeless', with nary a pause for breath. This is a band in full command of its range, and it's exhilarating, joyously exhausting stuff. 'I'll Make You Sorry', 'It All Means Nothing' and 'Criminal Image' were the scream-and-headbob-along highlights, but the setlist was, to belabour a tired cliché, all killer no filler. Screaming Females blasted their way through thirteen songs in under an hour. It's testament to the quality of the band's discography, that they could have played an equally long set composed of completely different tracks without a dip in overall quality. The crowd was undoubtedly left wanting more, but that's punk for you. If you find yourself within travelling distance of a city where Screaming Females are playing, make the effort. This is a band worth investing in. They pay out in spades.