Screaming Females are, first and foremost, a live band. Unless you’re able to witness the band’s furious indie punk anthems, and Marisa Paternoster’s much-ballyhooed shredding abilities — which take place on a guitar slung around her waist, Big Black-era Steve Albini style — then you’re not really getting the full picture. Several of the New Brunswick, New Jersey band’s records do a fine job of capturing that white-hot intensity on tape, particularly 2010′s catchy, albeit ass-kicking set Castle Talk. But unless you’re seeing Screaming Females wrecking their instruments onstage, you’re not fully getting the band in their element.
On Rose Mountain, the band’s sixth album and first to be recorded with Matt Bayles (Mastodon, Isis), some of that melodic shrapnel has been refashioned into solid, albeit streamlined shapes. The band still rocks — and hard at that — but in a slightly different way. Where Steve Albini captured some of that jagged, animated coarseness of the band’s live act on 2012′s Ugly, Bayles turns Paternoster’s guitar into something more like a heavy club than a series of daggers. For some listeners, it might take a little getting used to — the riffs on “Triumph” roar with a kind of stoner-rock burl, and at the 55 second mark of “Ripe,” it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking you actually just took Mastodon’s “Blood and Thunder” for a spin.
For all the heft that bolsters the songs on Rose Mountain, it’s actually more of a pop album than anything, and a damn good one at that. When Screaming Females clean up, it’s a good look for the band, and one that suggests there’s more to their music than the manic bouts of punk rock shred they’ve long since mastered. “Empty Head” soars from the get-go, introducing the album as a set of crunchy and catchy alt-rock songs with as much charm as they have teeth. But there’s an inward-looking anxiety and melancholy to Paternoster’s lyrics that reveal something deeper than where her power chords go, some of which came about as a result of a long period of chronic mononucleosis that sidelined her for almost a year. In “Empty Head” she asks “Why must I be the angry one?“, while “Ripe” finds her juxtaposing ideas of obsolescence with a breakup through lines like “When engines crack and fuel lines break off/I’ll save your bits and let your motor rot.” But it’s herself that she determines needs the tune-up in “Wishing Well,” suggesting, “In the next life I’ll be better.”
Paternoster’s physiology and rock records go, though, there are few flaws to be found on Rose Mountain. Indeed, the bloodthirsty ferocity of Screaming Females the live band has been replaced with a different kind of power, but at this stage of the band’s career, they’ve got that part down. If the Females have toned down their screaming a little bit this time around, it’s only in service of crafting an even better song.