In the early days of the 21st century, a fascination with 1970s arena rock served as the driving force within guitar-heavy circles, with acts ranging from sincere homage (The Strokes, Queens of the Stone Age) to overt parody (The Darkness, The Donnas). Learning from both camps, Screaming Females came barreling out of the New Jersey punk circuit with a vengeance, showcasing wailing vocals, steamy guitar licks, and an endlessly expansive and unmatched sound. The DIY rockers have consistently churned out biting albums, but their latest release, All at Once, demonstrates an artistic efficacy the band has only flirted with in the past.
Capitalizing on the potential of a bond they developed as teens, Screaming Females continue to refine and expand their unique sound on their seventh full-length album, pivoting toward genre moves that escape neat categorization. In a dynamic series of twists and turns, the record takes advantage of the deafening quiet of tracks like “Deeply” and “Dirt,” every bit as enraged as the rest of the band’s signature thunderous oeuvre but finding nuance in the softer, delicate moments. Full-mouthed punk takes a backseat as the band taps into catchy hooks, such as on the melodic, pop-punk earworm “I’ll Make You Sorry” or on the swaying, rhythmic “Bird in Space.”
The true marker of the band’s enriched confidence comes with the album’s centerpiece, the eight-minute, dual-part overture “Chamber for Sleep.” The first couple of minutes are fairly straightforward, but the suite quickly gives way to shifts and contortions that boast bizarre instrumentation, Space Age distortion, and mystical hypnotic visions. Even with its indulgent length, the jam session is purposeful, speaking its piece before it ever overstays its welcome, then transforming into an infectious power pop zinger.
That’s not to say that the trio have in any way lost their edge. All at Once opens with “Glass House,” setting the lumbering tone for the record with almost four minutes of gradual, pulsating build before exploding into the heavy, unrelenting “Black Moon.” Marissa Paternoster’s glass-shattering vibrato, though used more sparingly than usual here, still bursts through in full force. And she remains one of today’s criminally unsung guitar heroes, laying down piercing solos on nearly every track, particularly giving her graceful fingers a maneuvered workout on “Agnes Martin.” All the while, rhythm section Jarrett Dougherty and “King” Mike Abbate are erecting an unyielding wall of sound.
Much of All at Once confronts the double-edged dilemma of wanting to truly be seen and fearing the rejection that so often comes coupled with vulnerability (“Soft Domination,” “My Body”), but the more this band is willing to bare their flaws, the more secrets appear to be lurking beneath the surface. It is a welcome change to hear Paternoster’s patented snarl speaking so candidly about the insecurities of oversaturated exposure. Even as they venture into new aesthetic territory, Screaming Females continue to be one of the chief arguments for contemporary punk music.